Mark Rowswell explains why foreigners hate Dashan

Dashan (Mark Rowswell) hosting a live broadcast for China Central Television in November 2006I find it unlikely that there could be a foreigner in China that doesn’t know the name Dashan, and there’s certainly no Canadians unaware of the mystical Big Mountain of Chinese. 大山 comparisons, jokes and CCTV9 Chinese lessons have been a formative staple over the course of my time in China.

This past November the following question was posted on Quora: Why do so many Chinese learners seem to hate Dashan (Mark Rowswell)? He seems like a nice guy. Does he secretly eat children or something?. I’m sure we all have our own answers to that question, but none are likely to come close to the insight and self-reflection that the big Canuck himself answered with yesterday.

Mark Rowswell, the man behind the Mandarin, broke it down into 5 reasons:

  1. Overuse – People are sick and tired of hearing the name “Dashan”;
  2. Resentment (Part A) – Dashan’s not the only Westerner who speaks Chinese fluently;
  3. Resentment (Part B) – Being a foreign resident in China is not easy and Dashan gets all the breaks;
  4. Political/Cultural – People wish Dashan had more of an edge;
  5. Stereotyping – The assumption that Dashan is a performing monkey.

The whole answer is a bit lengthy, but well worth the read. Here are a few choice excerpts:

On why Dashan is so popular (related to #2 above):

… Dashan represents or symbolizes something very powerful to a Chinese audience. I don’t want to get too deeply into this, because my answer is already running too long, but let me say this: Chinese have a very complex and conflicting view of themselves and the world at large. They have a very strong self-identity and sense of pride, and this leads to a strong sense of “us vs. them” and of being misunderstood and misaligned by the rest of the world, or the West in particular, as well as a strong sense that they are gradually losing their language and culture in the process of globalization. In the face of this, Dashan represents a Westerner who appreciates and respects China, who has learned the language and understands the culture and has even become “more Chinese than the Chinese”. It’s a very powerful and reassuring image that appeals to very deep-rooted emotions.

On being Canadian (related to #4 above):

Culturally, the Dashan character does tend to be quite Canadian. We’re just not as aggressive in general as Americans. The adjective most used to describe Canadians is “nice”. How dull and boring can you get?

Although Canada and America are very close culturally, there are some fundamental differences. Primarily, Canadians never consider themselves to be number one in anything apart from hockey. And although we are both relatively young nations built by successive waves of immigration, Canadians have a much weaker self-identity than Americans. We don’t have a strong mainstream culture of our own, which I think makes us more malleable culturally. When Canadians come to China, we don’t do things “the Canadian way” because nobody has the slightest idea what “the Canadian way” is. So we tend to adapt pretty well to different cultures.

On why Dashan isn’t political (also related to #4 above):

… So I work within cultural norms. This spills over into the political realm, because, to be honest, Chinese cultural acceptance of foreign political criticism is almost nil. In short, I don’t have to worry about what government censors might say because Chinese audiences would never let me get that far anyway.

I could make a short public statement like that of Christian Bale recently or Björk a few years ago. It’s very easy to do and ensures you get very good coverage in the Western media. You go home and everyone thinks you are a person of moral conviction who stood up to the great Chinese monster. But the fact is that these kinds of statements elicit almost no sympathy whatsoever from ordinary Chinese citizens. They simply are not culturally acceptable to the broad Chinese audience. And it’s very difficult to see what impact they have other than to further convince ordinary Chinese people that China is misunderstood and that the Western world is antagonistic towards China and resentful of China’s development. What use is that?

I’m curious to read what others think of Dashan. John, of Sinosplice, mentioned in his post on this topic that, “the hubbub about Dashan has finally started to die down”. I can’t tell if this is true, or if after a certain number of years you just stop noticing it. Any FOB laowai still cringe at the mention of Dashan by a taxi driver? Do the new generation of foreigners in China even know who Dashan is?