Ancient China: Cannabis Culture Through the Ages

By Alex Baker

Ancient China: Cannabis Culture Through the Ages

Mankind has used cannabis for thousands of years in different regions around the world so it is perhaps unsurprising to learn that ancient China used cannabis widely in everyday life. In fact, the earliest known record of man using cannabis can be traced to an ancient Stone Age village in Taiwan, an island off the coast of China. Cannabis was known as ma in ancient China, and a fair amount of evidence documents its use. Thanks to this, we know that ma was used as food, medicine, hemp products and, yes, even as a psychoactive. 

Hemp in Ancient China

Used to make everyday items like paper and clothing, hemp occupied such an important place in ancient Chinese society that, at the time, the Chinese referred to their country as the “land of mulberry and hemp.” Although ancient China is often associated with fine silk, the expensive fabric was beyond the means of most ordinary Chinese. While the wealthy clad themselves in silk robes, most Chinese needed clothes made from a material that was both durable and affordable. That material was hemp. People continued to wear mostly hemp clothing in China until around 1200 A.D., when the conquering Mongols introduced cotton clothing.

Among all the innovations to emerge from ancient China, paper is one of the most significant, and textiles and paper made from cannabis were found in the 1st-century B.C. tomb of Emperor Wu (the Han dynasty). The process of making paper involved crushing hemp fibers together with mulberry bark to make a pulp that was then submerged in water. As tangled fibers rose to the surface, they were removed, placed in a mold and dried. Once dry, the fibers formed sheets on which people could write. 

With its strength and durability, hemp was also used for military purposes. Bowstrings made from hemp gave Chinese archers more range and power than their enemies who fought with bamboo bowstrings. This gave the Chinese military considerable advantage over enemy archers, who were in range of Chinese archers long before they were close enough to launch a volley of their own.

Cannabis as Medicine

Around 2700 B.C., Emperor Shen Nung recommended cannabis as a treatment for more than 100 ailments. Venerated as the Father of Chinese Medicine and the possible inventor of tea, the emperor provided the basis for Pen Ts’ao Ching, the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia, which suggested medicinal cannabis use for gout, rheumatism, malaria and intestinal constipation. Later, around the second century A.D., the Chinese surgeon Hua T’o (a.k.a. the founder of Chinese surgery) began to experiment with cannabis as an anesthetic. By combining cannabis resin with wine to create an anesthetic called ma-yo, Hua T’o found he was able to reduce patients’ pain during surgical procedures like organ drafts, resectioning of the intestines, loin incisions and chest incisions.

Cannabis for Food

The ancient Chinese viewed hemp seed flowers, or ma ren hua, as not just a medicinal plant, but also as a fiber-rich food. A well-preserved 2,100-year-old tomb discovered in the Hunan province contained numerous grains, including rice, wheat, millet, mustard seed and hemp seed. Exact records of cooking methods and products are limited, but there is mention of a hemp-seed porridge, and in latter years, using ma ren hua as an extract for frying foods. Although never quite as important a food source as grain, rice or mullet, hemp seed remained a major grain crop in China until other grain cereals gradually replaced it around the 10th century. The seeds are, however, still used for making kitchen oil in Nepal. 

Cannabis for Psychoactive Purpose

Despite being used for a variety of purposes including medicine, food, clothing, paper and weaponry, one aspect of cannabis rarely mentioned by the early Chinese is its psychoactive qualities. In 2008, Chinese archeologists unearthed a two-pound stash of cannabis that dated back about 2,700 years. Through study published in The Journal of Experimental Botany in 2008, the superbly preserved plants were high in psychoactive properties, but they were more likely used for medicinal purposes and/or as an aid for divination. 

Use of cannabis for intoxicating purposes was initially frowned upon by ancient Chinese society, but as Taoist interest in magic and alchemy grew in later years, cannabis seeds were burned along with incense, and the hallucinations they produced were valued as a means of achieving immortality and communing with spirits. However, a later edition of Pen Ts’ao Ching warned that, if one ate too many cannabis seeds, they would “see demons,” but if the seeds were consumed moderately over time, it was possible to “communicate with the spirits.”

Some evidence suggests cannabis may have been burned for therapeutic purposes in ancient China. Ancient Chinese texts speak of using a cigar rolled from mugwort in conjunction with acupuncture treatment—a combination known as moxibustion. According to naturopathic doctor Scott D. Rose, many scholars speculate that only the cigar skin was mugwort and that the actual herb burning inside was cannabis. This practice preceded the use of needles to facilitate the life-force energy flow that the Chinese call Qi

Main photo by Vadim Petrakov/Shutterstock



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