What I learned from Dashan

I don’t have much time for social Q&A site Quora, I confess. It seems to combine the narcissism of blogging (I should know!) with the politics of Wikipedia editing in all sorts of odd ways. I signed up early, lurked for a while, and then more or less forgot about it despite its popularity among several of my friends. But this morning I read a very good post on Quora by longtime Canadian China resident Mark Rowswell, aka TV performer “Dashan.” The question he was answering was: Why do so many Chinese learners seem to hate Dashan?

And a good question it is.

I myself have heard the outrageous lie, “Your Chinese is as good as Dashan’s!” often enough over the years to have had to suppress a gag reflex on many occasions. But I find both the comparison and Dashan-hate in general to be much less prevalent than they were six or seven years ago. I am not sure if this because there is actually less of them, or simply because I now move in circles that have graduated to other concerns. When one is a parent, one spends less time pondering Dashan and more time pondering how to keep one’s children from developing silicosis from the air. Or, at least, I do. Just writing about Dashan feels a bit like turning the clock back a few years.

But for a long time, Dashan was a guaranteed conversation starter. As you can see in the Quora entry, my old friend Kaiser Kuo actually wrote a That’s Beijing column in 2006 in praise of Dashan (he called me, among others, in researching it). It’s not worth recapping all of the pro- and con-Dashan arguments here. Rowswell gets into most of them in his Quora answer. But I would touch on one factor that I think is important. Rowswell writes about what he calls “stereotyping”:

This even borders on racism in more extreme cases. The logic seems to go like this: white guy – speaks Chinese – Chinese people laugh – he must be making an ass of himself. Of course, the only way a white guy could possibly entertain a Chinese audience would be to be a complete buffoon.

It’s the “race traitor” syndrome, and it’s always been a huge part of expat perceptions of Dashan. We all like to think we’re enlightened, but there are things that push deeply buried emotional buttons, including the notion that a compatriot (or, for Americans, near compatriot) might be demeaning us racially in front of –pardon my language– the natives. This is, of course, a completely colonial, racist and unworthy attitude, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. And it says something about how, deep down, many of us view our relationship with our Chinese hosts.

When the media is involved I think there is also a political reaction, where we see participants as selling out to or somehow collaborating with the regime in a way that crosses some imaginary line of decorum that the rest of us have respected. Both of these reactions also had a great deal to do with a bout of hate directed at CCTV 9 news anchor Edwin Maher a few years back, following an LA Times profile.

Rowswell’s entire Quora response is thoughtful and worth a read. There was, however, one other part that stood out to me, and is particularly relevant to anyone who communicates in China on behalf of a foreign entity (such as PR people, just to name a random example):

…I work within Chinese cultural norms – the limits of what is culturally acceptable to a Chinese audience. That doesn’t necessarily mean you pander. You can challenge the norms and push limits here and there, and I believe I have done and continue to do that, but in large part you work within a cultural acceptable limit. Chinese don’t go for shock humour, nor do they tend to accept what is commonly accepted in the West – that it’s OK to be offensive as long as you are offensive on an equal opportunity basis. That’s just not part of the Chinese comedy or media scenes.

Also, in many instances what would be acceptable for a Chinese performer to say is not considered acceptable for a foreign performer, especially when it comes to social or political satire. Even in a comedic exchange between individuals, you have to be aware that the audience may not perceive this as Character A making fun of Character B, but instead as Foreign Character making fun of Chinese Character, which goes over like a ton of bricks.

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.

So, 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?

Indeed. Whatever you think of Dashan, there are broader lessons in there for those who care to look.


In retrospect, and after hearing from some friends who feel differently, it occurs to me that I should have called this post, “Excuse me while I refuse to hate on Dashan.”

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