INTERVIEW: Nat Geo explores ‘Hidden Kingdoms of China’ in two-part special

Image: Courtesy of Nat Geo / Provided with permission.

The Hidden Kingdoms of China is a new two-part special set to air on National Geographic. Beginning Saturday, Feb. 22 at 9 p.m., the TV documentary explores the vast and extreme wild lands of the expansive country, according to press notes. There will be a particular focus on elusive species of animals such as the snub-nosed monkey, Tibetan fox, snow leopard and, of course, the panda bear.

The documentary comes at a time of great peril and uncertainty for the country of China. The continued ravages of the coronavirus has shut down the city of Wuhan and disrupted lives, businesses, transportation and everyday practices. The new film offers a differing narrative — and respite — from the barrage of headlines over the past few weeks.

Michelle Yeoh, most recently of Star Trek: Discovery, narrates the two-hour special, which spares no expense to find and document the unique habitats and behaviors of animals that brim with uniqueness and style.

Recently Hollywood Soapbox had the chance to exchange emails with executive producer Ashley Hoppin. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.

Does this TV special take on greater meaning given the difficulties China is currently facing?

It absolutely does. Affording China such a platform to show off its natural beauty couldn’t be better timed. It’s a timely reminder that China has stunning wildernesses and incredible wildlife, most of which is little known.

What was it like to round up and record all this footage?

China is incredibly interesting. There are relatively few wildlife crews documenting the amazing wildernesses and animals of China. Our team made the DisneyNature film Born in China, so we had the advantage of experience and familiarity as we made this series. Astonishing access means that this might well be the most comprehensive wildlife series on China, so it was a real privilege to work there. In some locations we were the first international film crew to ever visit.

How difficult was access for the cinematography team? Some of these animals are in difficult habitats.

It was a real test, especially for the mountains and grasslands team who had to cope with altitude and remoteness for significant periods for over 150 days in the field. But these difficulties led to unique filming opportunities that we are proud to have achieved as a team. We did have extraordinary access throughout China, and that was a huge privilege.

What do you feel Michelle Yeoh adds to the film?

Michelle’s heritage, along with her recognizable celebrity, make her the perfect fit to narrate this film and showcase the wonders and natural beauty of China we don’t see.

What sequence or animal is your favorite to see on the screen?

We are particularly proud of the snow leopard and Tibetan fox sequences, iconic animals that are difficult to film in the wild. We managed to capture some fascinating animal behavior. Also, scenes such as the panda cub licking its mothers lips and stimulating her to salivate, possibly to help develop its own immune system, could well be a television first. Similarly the captivating Emei moustached toad courtship and egg laying were all filmed at night in a stream with infrared cameras.

Why do you think the giant panda has become the image of conservation around the world?

Originally the panda became a conservation icon due to [the] need of a strong recognizable symbol that would overcome all language barriers. Now we are learning that it’s so much more — not only an important animal in its own right but as an ‘umbrella species’ as well — preserving not just its bamboo home, which is vast in China, but also a myriad of other species. Plus, they are so darn cute it’s hard not to look at them!

By John Soltes / Publisher /

The Hidden Kingdoms of China will air Saturday, Feb. 22 at 9 p.m. on Nat Geo. Click here for more information.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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