Dashan is best known for his mastery of Mandarin, and most of his performing and media work is done in Chinese.
Rowswell attended high school at Nepean High School in Ottawa, Ontario. Rowswell began studying Chinese while attending the University of Toronto in 1984. His original Chinese name, as given by his Canadian Chinese-language teacher, was Lu Shiwei (Chinese: 路士玮) based on his surname Rowswell. Upon graduation from the University of Toronto with a bachelor of arts in Chinese studies in 1988, Rowswell was awarded a full scholarship to continue Chinese language studies at Peking University.
Rowswell first appeared on Chinese television to host an international singing competition in November 1988. The following month he was invited to perform a comedic skit on national television during the CCTV New Year's Gala, a variety program broadcast to an estimated audience of 550 million people. The name "Dashan" ("big mountain" in Chinese) comes from the character Xu Dashan (Chinese: 许大山) that Rowswell played in the skit, which was entitled Ye gui (Chinese: 夜归). The skit propelled him to national stardom overnight because of his fluent Chinese and delivery.
Due to the abrupt nature of Dashan's rise to fame, he has been called an "accidental celebrity."(by whom?|date=August 2017]] However, his subsequent longevity and continuing prominence in the Chinese media more than two decades later suggest something more substantial. Many foreign nationals appear regularly on Chinese television, and foreigners fluent in the Chinese language are no longer a rarity. Yet no other foreign national has come close to the level of recognition and popularity in China enjoyed by Dashan.
Following Rowswell's first appearance as "Dashan", he began formal study of xiangsheng (Chinese: 相声 a traditional Chinese comedic performance) with his mentor, comedian Jiang Kun (Chinese: 姜昆). In December 1989, Dashan became the first foreigner to be formally accepted into the strict xiangsheng hierarchy as a member of the "9th generation," a move that caused considerable controversy in Chinese performing arts circles at the time. xiangsheng is often called "the art of comedic language," and as such is regarded in China as a highly skilled form of performing art beyond the reach of most native speakers, much less a foreigner.
Through the 1990s, Dashan appeared frequently on national and regional television programs across China to perform xiangsheng and comedic skits, including several appearances on CCTV's annual television program celebrating the Chinese New Year, CCTV New Year's Gala (Chinese: 春节联欢晚会), in 1998 and 1999. This program is China's most watched annual television event, with an estimated audience of 900 million to 1 billion viewers. Appearances on this and other programs gained Dashan wide recognition throughout China.
Dashan's public xiangsheng performances decreased in the early 21st century. In a 2005 interview with the Chongqing Evening News, Dashan stated that he seldom performs xiangsheng due to the increased requirements that performers stick to a stipulated topic as well as exceeding audience expectations since his televised debut.
With the move away from xiangsheng, throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s Dashan increasingly worked in a non-comedic role as a freelance host or presenter of many varied television programs and live events, especially those with an international focus and requiring a bilingual (English/Chinese) emcee.
Dashan also hosted numerous educational programs. Most notable of these include the ESL series 'Dashan and Friends' (Chinese: 随大山商访加拿大) and 'Dashan's Adventures' (Chinese: 随大山万里行) and programs teaching Chinese as a foreign language for CCTV International, including "Travel In Chinese" (Chinese: 旅游汉语).
Dashan has occasionally delved into dramatic acting, often to portray other famous foreigners in Chinese history. In 2005, he played the lead role in a 24-part television series "Palace Artist" (Chinese: 宫廷画师郎世宁) broadcast by China Central Television, as the 18th century Italian Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione. In 2006-07, Dashan performed the lead role in "Red Star Over China" (Chinese: 红星照耀中国), a stage play based on the life and work of the American reporter Edgar Snow. In 2007-08 he starred in a Chinese stage adaptation of the French comedy "Le Dîner de Cons" ("The Dinner Game" in English, Chinese: 超级笨蛋), which toured across China and for which he was awarded the prestigious White Magnolia Award for best supporting actor.
Dashan served as Team Attaché to the Canadian Olympic Committee for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
In early 2009 Dashan made a return to the CCTV New Year's Gala to perform a xiangsheng skit in which he appeared together with Ma Dong (Chinese: 马东), son of the famous xiangsheng master Ma Ji (Chinese: 马季). The skit received 2nd Prize in the audience choice awards announced at the end of the Chinese New Year holiday. With this performance, Dashan became (at the time) the only foreign national to have appeared on the CCTV New Year's Gala a total of three times.
Dashan made a fourth appearance on the CCTV New Year's Gala in 2011, in a skit introducing and performing with several foreign students studying Chinese at Confucius Institutes. The skit had no accompanied Chinese performers and was awarded second prize in the audience choice awards.
Dashan continues to be a popular performer and on-air personality on Chinese television. In recent years Dashan has also become more active in online and social media, attracting over 5 million followers on two Chinese microblogs, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo.
In many instances, Dashan has transcended the role of celebrity performer to become a cultural ambassador between China and the West, both in an informal as well as official capacity.
Dashan served as Commissioner General for Canada at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo.
During his official visit to China in February 2012, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced: “For many years Mark Rowswell has used his extraordinary talents to build bridges of understanding between Canada and China. I am pleased to name this highly recognized and respected individual as Canada’s Goodwill Ambassador to China.”
Since late 2013 Dashan has been "on a mission to introduce stand-up comedy to China", performing in small clubs and at universities across China. In June 2014 he announced his plan to develop a travelling show, the "Burned Out, Washed Up, Never Say Farewell" tour. This later became known as his solo comedy special "Dashan Live" (Chinese: 大山侃大山), which he has toured throughout China and to Chinese communities abroad. In 2017 Dashan was the only Mandarin performer at the 2017 Melbourne International Comedy Festival, the third-largest international comedy festival in the world and the largest cultural event in Australia.
Dashan's distinctive voice has been featured in many Mandarin language narration and spoken word performances, including the children's story Guess How Much I Love You as performed by Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia, Peter and the Wolf as performed by the New York Philharmonic in Shanghai, an original Mandarin version of The Carnival of the Animals, performed with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and modern Chinese poetry for the popular WeChat channel "The Poem For You" (Chinese: 为你读诗)
On June 29, 2011, the National Gallery of Canada launched an audio tour that was recorded by Dashan. The tour features Dashan speaking in Mandarin about the gallery's Canadian art collection.
Dashan's name and image can often be seen in commercial endorsements for various Chinese and international companies, including Canadian Ford automobiles starting in 2007 and 2008. Dashan is also active as a spokesman for several charity organizations, primarily involved with cancer prevention as well as environmental protection.
On April 30, 2014 Dashan was appointed to a three-year term as a member of Governing Council of the University of Toronto, and was renewed for another three-year term in 2017. He also serves on the university's Asia International Leadership CouncilIn 2009, Thompson Rivers University (Kamloops, BC, Canada) bestowed an Honorary Doctorate on Dashan recognizing his efforts to build global connections between cultures and economies through international education. The Honorary Doctorate was presented by TRU during its Convocation ceremony on June 26 at the Tianjin University of Technology, Tianjin, China.In 2008, Dashan was awarded the White Magnolia Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in "The Dinner Game". This marks the first time a Westerner has received one of China's most prestigious awards for the performing arts.In 2007, The Governor-General of Canada announced that Dashan had been appointed a member of the Order of Canada, Canada's highest civilian honour in recognition of a lifetime of outstanding achievement. The appointment had been in effect since October 5, 2006.In 2006, Dashan was awarded the Key to the City of Ottawa, in recognition, as a native of Ottawa, of his contribution to furthering understanding between the peoples of China and Canada.In 2004, Dashan was chosen as one of "Ten Outstanding Young Adults of Beijing." This marked the first time a foreign national has received this award, one of the highest honours granted by the Beijing authorities.In 2004, Dashan also received a rare "Special Recognition Award" from the Canadian Cancer Society for his work on a joint Canada-China cancer prevention program.In 2000, the University of Toronto selected Dashan as one of "100 Alumni Who Shaped the Century."In 1999, TIME Magazine selected Dashan as one of the "Leaders for the 21st Century."In 1998, China's New Weekly Magazine chose Dashan as one of the "Outstanding People of the Past 20 Years."In 1995, the National Film Board of Canada produced a documentary, directed by Guy Nantel, called Dashan, Ambassador to China's Funny Bone.