Man in the woods looking out

Flowe co-hosts National Geographic docuseries

On season two of "Ancient China From Above," Douglas Flowe adventures through museums, archaeological sites, and mountain ranges to solve ancient Chinese mysteries. The work is part of Flowe’s wider efforts as a public historian.

Douglas Flowe, the Georgie W. Lewis Career Development Professor, will be the first to admit he's not an expert on ancient China but, in 2022, he stepped into the role of co-host of National Geographic’s “Ancient China From Above” docuseries.

Douglas Flowe

Flowe is no stranger to appearing on television or talking about history beyond the classroom. His book "Uncontrollable Blackness: African American Men and Criminality" was published in May 2020, just a few days before the murder of George Floyd. Immediately, he began appearing on news shows to provide historical context on the killing and the widespread protests that followed. Since then, he has appeared on numerous podcasts, news shows, television series — including PBS, The History Channel, Fox, and CNN — and a documentary film on New York City’s Lincoln Center set to premiere in fall 2024.

When National Geographic invited him to travel to China to co-host the second season of “Ancient China From Above,” it was “unlike anything I’ve ever done,” he said. For starters, he arrived in Shanghai amid the country’s “zero-COVID” policy. His first 10 days were spent quarantining in a hotel room, eating delivered food, and undergoing daily swab tests. The show’s topic also wasn’t his area of specialty.

As a boy, Flowe wanted to study ancient history — he dreamed of being a field archeologist who could step into the classroom in a tweed suit like Indiana Jones in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — but he eventually chose to specialize in African American history, crime, and the carceral state. National Geographic producers casting for the show's co-host wanted someone familiar with history and historical methods who wasn’t already an expert on ancient China. “They wanted someone to play the role of an elevated audience member,” Flowe said.

In the series, Flowe acts as something of a stand-in for viewers, asking the questions they might have. For nearly a month after his initial quarantine, he journeyed across western China with a film crew visiting some of the country’s most interesting historical sites and less-traveled cities. Each day included trying different regional cuisines (such as crickets and duck blood), navigating strict COVID policies, and having novel experiences such as walking among the famous terracotta warriors.

One memorable day brought the crew to Sanxingdui, a Bronze Age site in the city of Guanghan in the Sichuan province. There, Flowe watched as an archaeologist reached into the mouth of a bronze figure she’d just dug from the ground, pulling a piece of jade from its mouth. “It’s likely the first time that jade has seen the light of day since it was placed underground three millennia ago,” he said.

Series director Arthur Jones and Flowe (right) in Guanghan

He also recalled a treacherous hike up the side of a mountain to a cinnabar cave in Shaanxi province. The team was looking for details about the reign of the First Qin Emperor, Qinshihuang, who ruled in the 3rd century BCE. “We were supposed to walk 15 minutes to the site, and it ended up being over an hour,” Flowe said. “It was a beautiful and harrowing ascent, and, by the time we went back, it was completely dark.”

Over the years, Flowe has come to embrace his role as a public historian. He said it’s important for his students and the public to understand how history works. “It’s an investigation,” Flowe explained, “one that requires creativity.” He appreciates that “Ancient China From Above” showcases historical methods, stitching together information to create a story. “Forming a narrative and understanding its implications is a far more important function of history than the regurgitation of facts.”

Season two of "Ancient China From Above” will be available on the National Geographic Channel and Disney+ later this year.

(Header photo: Courtesy of Douglas Flowe)