No one can ascertain the precise origins of marijuana in human history. It was originally believed that the Ancient Chinese were among the first to use the plant, but an archaeological discovery of hemp rope, in the area once called Czechoslovakia, dated to almost 30,000 years ago changes our perceptions. Were Europeans the first to discover and use marijuana after all?
Aside from this one shred of evidence, all signs point to China as the first great civilization to use cannabis. Before delving further into marijuana use in China, I must explode a popular myth. According to legend, Emperor Shen Nung used marijuana as medicine in 2,737 BC. It was supposedly the first ever written mention of weed. As a result, Shen Nung is regarded by some as the ‘Father of Chinese Medicine.’
In theory, it is possible that the legend is true, because China has been using written script for more than 3,000 years. However, there is no historical record of a unified China going back any further than the third century BC. There were dynasties, beginning with the Xia Dynasty in 2070 BC, although it did not rule all of China. In other words, there was no ‘emperor’ Shen Nung. In reality, he is one of the three ‘celestial emperors.’
Known as the ‘Red Emperor’, Shen Hung allegedly reigned for 140 years! His successor, Huang Ti, or the Yellow Emperor, ruled for almost 500 years; just in case you needed any further proof that Shen Nung’s existence is nothing more than a myth. The pharmacopoeia that he allegedly wrote, Treatise on Medicine, was almost certainly written by someone else around 2,000 years ago.
Marijuana in Ancient China – The Real Origins
Up until the discovery in Czechoslovakia, the earliest record of mankind’s use of cannabis was discovered in Taiwan, an island located just off the coast of China. Archaeologists uncovered an ancient village site that is anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 years old. In it, excavators found broken pieces of pottery and rod-shaped tools which looked just like ones found later that were known to have been used to loosen marijuana fibers from their stems.
It is believed that cannabis seeds and oil were used as a food source by the Chinese in around 6,000 BC. There is also a suggestion that the Chinese used hemp to create textiles in 4,000 BC. This isn’t a stretch, since archaeologists have discovered evidence of Nalebinding, an early textile method, from 6,500 BC. Fragments of private looms were found in Yuyao, Zhejiang, from 6,000 years ago, although it is likely that the Chinese used silk and other materials before discovering that hemp could be used to make clothing.
One of the most significant marijuana-related discoveries in recent history occurred in 2016. A team of researchers found 13 female cannabis plants in an ancient tomb in northern China. The plants were arranged diagonally over the body of a man, who was probably a Shaman. Carbon dating indicates that the cemetery is anywhere from 2,400 to 2,800 years old. It was the first time that archaeologists had ever discovered complete cannabis plants, and it was also the first incidence of marijuana’s use as a covering (or shroud) in a human burial.
There have been several other findings of cannabis in sites dotted across north-western China and Siberia. However, on this occasion, the plants that were discovered were placed freshly on the corpse, an indication that the weed was grown locally. It is yet another piece of evidence which shows that marijuana was used ritually. If you can remember Part 1 of this article series, the Scythians also used cannabis during burial ceremonies.
The researchers who made the discovery believe that there is growing proof of cannabis’ use for medicinal or ritualistic purposes by the Subeixi people, and other groups living in the area. In 2006, researchers discovered a huge supply of processed female marijuana flowers in a cemetery at nearby Yanghai. It is probable that the plants were selected for their psychoactive high, and possibly as a means of improving communication between our world and that of the spirits.
According to E. L. Abel in Marijuana: The First Twelve Thousand Years, ‘female man-barbarians,’ a group of Amazon-like female warriors who lived in Indochina, offered a tribute of a brocade fashioned from hemp to a Chinese emperor in the ninth century BC.
Although Imperial China did not exist until the formation of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC, there were other dynasties beforehand, although none of them ruled the whole of China. Therefore, it would have been an Emperor of the Zhou Dynasty who received the hemp brocade.
What Did the Ancient Chinese Do with Marijuana?
‘A significant number of things’ is the best answer. Once the Chinese learned more about the plant, they discovered that it was dioecious. One interesting tidbit is that the Chinese word for hemp, Ma, is comprised of two symbols. If you look closely, you can see that the straight lines represent hemp hanging from a rack; the vertical and horizontal lines represent the ‘home’ where they were drying.
The Chinese called male plants hsi, and female plants were known as chu. They quickly discovered that the fiber from the male plants was better, but the females produced superior seeds. Ancient China was a place where havoc was normal as local land barons fought one another for supremacy, and hemp actually replaced bamboo as the material of choice for bow strings when it was discovered to be more durable.
Archers that used hemp strings could send their arrows further and faster than ever before. The importance of hemp was such that Chinese barons used to set aside large tracts of land to grow it. Practically every canton grew hemp, and it was soon discovered that you could use the plant for food.
Millet and rice were the most crucial crops, followed by vegetable gardens and orchards. Hemp was classified as the next most important food source. Oil extracted from hemp seeds was used to fry food, and the plant remained as an important one in Chinese culture until the sixth century AD.
Once the men had harvested the hemp, the women manufactured clothes from the fibers to ensure the family had enough clothes. After the needs of the family were satisfied, they sold other garments. Weaving was an arduous process and took several months each year. It is believed that the legendary Chinese philosopher, Confucius, compiled an array of Chinese literary classics in the sixth century BC, many of which contained references to uses of the hemp plant allegedly going back as far as 1,800 BC.
Marijuana Use in AD China
According to legend, a Chinese court official named Ts’ai Lun invented the paper making process in the second century AD. He created a writing tablet out of hemp fiber and changed the course of history. Alas, Lun was unable to deal with the murky machinations of court intrigue and committed suicide by drinking poison!
Marijuana was probably used as medicine by the Chinese for several thousand years. One of the first references to weed as medicine comes from a physician for the Han Dynasty named Hua Tuo in the second century AD. As far as the story goes, Tuo crushed cannabis into a fine powder and mixed it with wine to create the first known anesthetic. Unfortunately, the precise recipe is lost to history because the surgeon was executed after falling foul of a monarch.
At some point between the first and third centuries, a medical author named Zhang Zhongjing wrote about a medical ‘cure.’ The recipe included “pills of fructus cannabis.” During the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907), the first Medical University was established in China (probably in 629 AD). It is possible that the uses of medical marijuana were taught at the school, although it had seemingly fallen out of favor by then.
Final Thoughts About Marijuana in Ancient China
The history of China is a lengthy and fascinating study. Since the West has only really had ‘access’ to China since the 1980s, there is an enormous amount of historical information left to discover. It is fascinating to learn that marijuana played such a major role in the development of ancient China, one of the most advanced civilizations in history.
It is further evidence that those who rail against the legalization of cannabis have little or no idea what they are talking about, or why they are so keen to keep weed illegal in the first place.
The ancient Chinese used marijuana thousands of years ago, and far from leading to the downfall of civilization, it arguably helped it thrive. The Chinese used marijuana as a medicine, and to make clothes, food, and even weaponry. It seems remarkable that ancient peoples, with the merest fraction of the tools and knowledge we have today, were better equipped to use cannabis. The more we study this plant, the more obvious it becomes that prohibition is ludicrous.