My life has been changing with China - Dashan
Updated: 2008-11-27 14:56

OTTAWA -- China has undergone fundamental changes during the past 20 years and it is really difficult to sum up its achievements in simple language, Dashan, one of China's most famous foreigners, said recently.

"It is easy to talk about unchanged things in China, because there are few of them. But it is really hard to list China's changes, because there are so many," Dashan, a Canadian national who has become a bona fide celebrity in China, said during a recent interview in Toronto.

Mark Henry Rowswell, known as Dashan in China

"For the past 24 years, I have been closely tied with China. My life has been changing along with China, as have the programs that I perform as well as all the other things I do," said Dashan, whose legendary ability to speak the Chinese language has made him one of the best comedians in China.

Born Mark Henry Rowswell in Ottawa, Dashan began studying Chinese while attending the University of Toronto in 1984. Upon graduation in 1988, he was awarded a full scholarship to continue Chinese language studies at Peking University, where he was to begin his infatuation with Chinese performing arts and his future career as a freelance performer in China.

In December 1988, Dashan was invited to perform a comedy skit for the China Central Television (CCTV) New Year's Gala, a variety program broadcast to a countrywide audience to celebrate Spring Festival. The performance propelled him to national stardom overnight and earned him the Chinese name "Dashan" ("big mountain" in Chinese), the name of the character he played in the skit.

To Dashan, one of the most obvious changes in China lies in its way of communicating with the outside world, which has become increasingly smooth. While his first trip to China in 1988 lasted days and involved two connecting flights and a train journey from Hong Kong to Beijing, now it takes a mere 13 hours to fly non-stop from Toronto to Beijing, said Dashan, who travels frequently between the two sides of the Pacific.

He recalled that he had to write letters to his family during his first two years in China. It took two weeks for the mail to arrive in Ottawa and another two weeks for him to get a reply.

"Now, everything has changed. I could talk with my parents on cellphone and it costs only 4 yuan (about 60 US cents) a minute. Of course you can also talk free on the Internet," he said.

The achievements of China's reform and opening-up policy are best reflected in the worldwide enthusiasm for learning Chinese language in recent years, Dashan noted.

"Nowadays foreigners are a common sight for Chinese people, foreigners who speak fluent Chinese are no longer a rarity. This is only natural, because as China opens more and develops more, as China's international status improves, more and more foreigners are learning the Chinese language," he said.

He added that while many foreigners tend to mention the tall buildings and the improvement in infrastructure, he thinks the most important changes in China lie in the increasing opening of people's minds and their deepening understanding of the world.

Dashan said this point was evident when he partnered with Chinese comedian Guo Donglin recently to perform the classical French comedy "Dinner Game," which was warmly received throughout the country.

"I am Caucasian, Guo Donglin is Asian, and we both enacted French characters. But the audience did not care about the skin color or nationality, they only cared about the story, which would have been almost impossible 30 years ago," he said.

As China opens up more to the world and as the language barrier is overcome, Chinese people find that foreigners are not very different from themselves. Foreigners in China and local residents now understand and cooperate with each other much better, Dashan said.

He thinks the Beijing Olympics played an important role in promoting China to the outside world. Before the Games, much of the reporting on China in western media was negative and critical. However, a large section of the press now present China in a more objective way.

"This is mainly because, before the games, the reporters had learned about China through other media. But once they come to China and saw it through their own eyes, their opinion of China inevitably changed."

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