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1800 years ago hemp was considered to be an essential part of life in China, and was critical in the creation of paper, textiles, and medicines. The use of cannabis in modern-day China has mostly ceased, however, around the globe there continues to be an explosion in the CBD, hemp, and cannabis markets. What happened? Stick around to find out.


Hemp is a miraculous plant that produces strong fibers similar to cotton. Unlike cotton, hemp takes less water to grow, is gentle on soil, and is more durable and long-lasting than “the fabric of our lives”. 

The people of China have been using hemp as a household textile for thousands of years. The earliest example of hemp was discovered from rope imprints on broken pottery from 10,000 BC (that’s 12,022 years ago!). 

Hemp differs slightly from regular cannabis plants in that it contains less than 0.3% THC. CBD (the non-psychoactive pain alleviant) can be harvested from the hemp plant, but the reasons people in China were using hemp initially were not medically related.

The first paper in China was made of hemp. Clothing, rope, and strong bow and arrow strings were made of hemp. And then, eventually, medicine was made from hemp too. 


Shen-Nung was the Chinese emperor in 2700 BC and is known as the father of Chinese medicine. Often depicted to be cloaked in plants and outside in nature, Shen-Nung was a farmer.

In the name of finding a cure for the suffering of his subjects, Shen-Nung would often poison himself and then search for a cure in plants. Shen-Nugn would add his findings to the medical encyclopedia he compiled called “Pen Ts’ao” and among his findings was the cannabis plant, which was referred to as “Ma”. 

Ma was celebrated for its balanced female (yin) and male (yang) qualities. Shen-Nung believed that when the yin and yang are balanced that the body can perform in complete harmony, and conversely, when the body is out of harmony that it is unwell. 

Ma was used to treat menstruation pains, gout, rheumatism, malaria, constipation, and absentmindedness. 

Cannabis in Taoism

Taoism is a religion that was established in China in the year 221 BC. Much of the practice of Taoism is centered around achieving harmony with the universe and going with the flow. Practice often takes place at an altar and through meditation. 

Early Taoist shamans would consume cannabis and ginseng to reveal truths about the future. Use of cannabis was exclusive, reserved only for religious officials, and kept away from the masses. It is for this reason that cannabis is believed to be excluded from ancient texts. However, there have been traces of cannabis found in incense holders left at burial sites. 

By the year 200 (CE), the Han Dynasty of China had moved on from Taoism to Confucianism (a comparable set of beliefs) and cannabis was no longer used. 

Cannabis in Chinese Medicine

The Chinese physician and surgeon, Hua T’o, began to use cannabis as an anesthesia in experimental surgeries during the 2nd century (175-225). Hua T’o was encountering many wounded soldiers and wanted to help ease their pain. 

Hua T’o called his anesthesia, “mafeisan”. Mafeisan is a mixture of cannabis resin and wine, and it helped relieve Hua T’o’s patients from the horrors of early surgery. 

In 1500 BC cannabis first appeared in the Chinese Pharmacopeia.

Cannabis as a Dietary Staple

In the ancient Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907), cannabis was made into a type of porridge and eaten in a similar fashion to rice. In old texts, cannabis was referred to as “wu gu” meaning it was one of five staple food crops. 

In 2019 a tomb from the Tang era was discovered, and discovered in it was a jar of food. Upon further examination, many of the seeds contained in the jar were cannabis, but with a noticeable difference. Ancient cannabis seeds were twice as big as the modern day cannabis plant!


Modern Day Cannabis in China 

Nowadays it is a criminal offense to possess cannabis in China. China banned cannabis in 1985, after identifying it as a dangerous narcotic drug. If someone is caught selling cannabis for recreation, it could mean jail time, a fine, or even a death sentence. 

Contrary to their strict laws surrounding cannabis, China is one of the leading producers of CBD worldwide. How can both be true?

In recent years the Chinese government has allowed farmers to plant “safe” cannabis species that have low THC levels and high cannabinol, resulting in a compound which has a soothing effect but is not addictive.


In Summary

Even though people have been studying the medicinal effects of cannabis for almost five thousand years, we are still finding new takes on an old classic.

Cannabis has always been thought of as medicinal. Hemp has always been practical. Cannabis in China is a tale as old as time, and continues to build on itself to this day. 


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