Cannabis Use in the Ancient World: Ancient China

26th December 2019

Human beings have had an incredibly long-standing relationship with the Cannabis Sativa plant. In fact, ‘Sativa’ itself is even Latin for ‘sow’ or ‘cultivate’, proving the agricultural origins of the Cannabis plant. Some of the earliest evidence of medicinal Cannabis use has been found in China.

So, how did the ancient Chinese make use of the Cannabis plant?

Currently, the earliest archaeological evidence of the Cannabis plant lies in ancient Chinese pottery. Pots dating back to 10,000 BC reveal imprints from Hemp fibre. Hemp cloth originating from the Chou Dynasty (1122 – 249 BC) has also been discovered in China.

Hemp became an important resource in everyday life, and even in battle. The Ancient Chinese used the strong stalks of the Cannabis Sativa plant to make bows. Evidence of Ancient Chinese societies also survives through written documents, dating back to ancient times, and referring to even earlier periods.

The Earliest Reports of Medicinal Cannabis in China

The Legend of the Red Emperor

The earliest reports of medicinal Cannabis come from Ancient Chinese legends, the most interesting of which may be the ‘Red Emperor’. Emperor Shen-Nung, also known as the ‘Father of Chinese Medicine’ is said to have ruled around 2700 BCE. However, no one really knows whether Shen-Nung was the personification of multiple people (his reign is said to span over 140 years), or whether he really existed at all.

medicinal cannabis Emperor Shen Nung
Portrait of the Red Emperor dressed in leaves

The Pen T’Sao (The Great Herbal)

In Chinese tradition, Emperor Shen-Nung of China is credited with being the first person to experiment with the medicinal potential of Cannabis. The legend says that he even compiled a book, referencing the plant among many other natural remedies in the ‘Pen T’sao’ (The Great Herbal).

Alas, the earliest known copy of the Pen T’sao only dates back to 50 AD – that’s almost 3,000 years after Emperor Shen-Nung is said to have ruled. That is not to say, however, that earlier versions of the Pen T’sao didn’t exist. In fact, they likely did, as much of Ancient Chinese Tradition was passed down, and rewritten over generations.

Whatever the actual time frame may be – and we may never know – The Great Herbal describes a number of medicinal uses of the Cannabis plant. Among these uses are menstrual pain, rheumatism, gout, malaria, and beriberi.

Hua T’o and Cannabis Anesthetic

In the second century AD, surgeon, Hua T’o began to utilise medicinal Cannabis as an anesthetic in China. The plant was mixed with wine and given to patients before surgeries. The Chinese word for anesthesia still reflects this – m√°zui –¬†literally translates to ‘cannabis intoxication’.

During this period, the Chinese also used Cannabis as a treatment for blood clots, tape-worms, and constipation, among other ailments.

Other Ancient Chinese Cannabis Uses

Although there is little written evidence of recreational use in Ancient China, the Pen-t’sao ching stated that “[the fruits of Cannabis] if taken in excess will produce visions of devils … over a long term, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body”. It is believed that in this context, recreational Cannabis use was associated with Shamanism.

During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the practise of Shamanism began to decline, meaning there is little written evidence of Shaman religious practise.

Recreational Cannabis Use

However, a burial site recently excavated in western China provided the most concrete evidence of recreational Cannabis use in China. A 2,500-year-old brazier was discovered at the site, containing stones which were burnt to produce fumes. Compounds of the Cannabis plant were also found in the brazier, implying it was burned for recreational consumption.

medicinal Cannabis China brazier
Brazier found with remains of high-THC Cannabis

Tests identified that the Cannabis contained unusually high levels of THC in relation to typical Cannabis plants of the time. This implies not only the intentional use of high-THC Cannabis but also intentional cultivation of it, in the area.

Despite China perhaps having the longest history with the Cannabis plant, its medicinal and recreational use did not become as prevalent as it did in India. This country will be the topic of our next insight into medicinal Cannabis in the ancient world.


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