Not many performers can claim to be an overnight sensation; Rowswell literally was. After appearing on a televised crosstalk skit in 1988, playing the character Dashan, or ‘Big Mountain,’ he awoke to learn his audience numbered more than half a billion, most of whom had never seen a foreigner speaking Chinese. Within years, Rowswell and his character had become one.
But appearing on television while China was still in its post-1989 pariah period cost him dearly in the eyes of some foreigners, notably writer Peter Hessler, who criticized Rowswell as a “trained monkey” in his book River Town: “[M]ost waiguoren [foreigners] in China hated Da Shan,” Hessler wrote. “The more your Chinese improved … the more you heard about Da Shan and how much better than you he was.”
“That criticism is entirely rooted in a Western media narrative that is simply not shared or even understood by Chinese audiences,” Rowswell says. “If it was immoral to come to China in 1990, why was it suddenly moral in 1995 or even 2014? What changed, other than the passage of time dulling memories? It’s an entirely false sense of morality.”
As a result of their fame, Rowswell and Wong can persuade ordinary Chinese, who’d normally be more comfortable with crosstalk, to give stand-up a shot. As Rowswell took questions from the audience at the bookstore in Beijing, one middle-aged woman said she knew that “foreign comics” were prone to “yellow”—sexual—humor and swearing, but had incorrectly assumed that this would not be case with Dashan, who’d sprinkled cracks about former President Jiang Zemin’s mistress and Dongguan’s infamous sex trade into his routine, and even dropped a couple of F-bombs. (She still claimed to have enjoyed herself.)
The other key to their success has been reinvention, something they share with another well-known (Irish-born, Brooklyn-bred) local comic, Des Bishop, who’s spent the past year in Beijing mastering Mandarin for a documentary with Irish broadcaster RTE, Des Bishop Breaking China. The serendipity of three professionals plying Chinese comedy at the same time has proven something of an adrenaline shot to the local scene, which, until recently, has mostly consisted of weekly open-mics in sleepy hutong bars.
After months of receiving advice about what does and doesn’t ‘work’ in China, Bishop is phlegmatic about the matter. “In practice, the differences [between the U.S. and China] aren’t huge,” he reckons, pointing out that “most of the comedians haven’t learnt the craft well enough yet…. Subtlety doesn’t land as much here, but that’s more due to lack of exposure.” He compares Chinese stand-up to hip-hop: It’s “much more complex now that it was in 1978, [but] that’s just a natural evolution.”
On the question of ‘difference,’ though, there is some disagreement. “The difference is entirely a product of the state system, and not cultural at all,” claims Mia Li, a 29-year-old from Shandong province who performs a monthly stand-up routine at one of China’s sleepy bars. Sarcastic, Chinese, and female (a rare combination), it’s not surprising that Li takes comedy more seriously than most: “To tell a joke is to remind people of something true that they forgot to laugh about,” she says. “A joke is simply not funny if it’s not true. In China, the truth is just not talked about, because it conflicts with the Party-sanctioned version of ‘reality.’”
Wong thinks these distinctions may stretch as far back as Socrates and Confucius, who lived during similar periods while proselytizing vastly different philosophies to their Western and Eastern followers. “Socrates was more about using logic to find the truth while Confucius is about who’s obeying who—the social order,” says Wong. “That has a huge impact on society…. In China, there’s not much questioning. People just accept.” Or, at least, they used to: According to Li, for young people humor is now becoming “an act of rebellion first and a display of wit second.” Laughter involves the audience as a “partner in crime,” she thinks. “This intimacy is what makes Chinese humor special.”
Usually, though, Chinese performers avoid sensitive issues altogether. (One ‘edgy’ joke features an American asking a Chinese what he thinks of his government. His response: “I can’t complain.”) In fact, comedy shows in China are typically illegal without a performance license. The law is deliberately complicated, with all kinds of parameters (Is the show filmed? Is there a door charge?), but the general understanding is that gatherings exceeding 30 people require permission in advance from the police. Yet these rules are often ignored and, as far as Li is concerned, “you just put on shows until you get arrested.”
“When you apply for [a performance license], that’s when you discover how weird China is,” Bishop says. He gives an example of an unexpected ‘red line’—a joke he learned from his Mandarin teacher about the different ways the word ‘love’ is written in simplified Chinese, which is used on the mainland, and traditional Chinese. The simplified version ditches the ‘heart’ character, “but actually marriage in China isn’t about love at all, so where the heart used to be, I write a dollar sign.” When Bishop warmed up for Wong in Shanghai, officials vetted the entire performance in advance and immediately ruled out the joke. “They use traditional characters in Taiwan and you couldn’t say that [they] are better,” he explains. Political correctness isn’t confined to China, though. “Making jokes about women being bad drivers is a no-no,” Wong says of America. “In China,” he shrugs—“It’s fine!”