Cannabis in Ancient China

With today’s gourmet cannabis edibles and fancy CBD vapes, it’s good to know about to the roots and discover how our ancestors did it back in the day -- from the first seed planted into dirt into the shimmering, thricome-covered buds of today. This is Hemp History, Cannabis in Ancient China.

The world is Made in China and hemp is no exception. Historical records show they’ve been using cannabis for 10,000 years from food, textiles, warfare, and medicine.

The oldest known character for hemp. Looks like some buds drying on a rack, eh?

As Food

Cannabis was considered one of the ‘five grains’ along with the likes of rice, barley, millet, and soy beans. It was also used as a source of cooking oil to fry food from back in the day.

As Medicine

Hemp has been used as medicine throughout the world for centuries. Folk remedies and ancient medicines refer to the curative values of the leaves, seeds and roots. The seed and flowers were recommended for difficult childbirth, convulsions, arthritic joints, rheumatism, dysentery and insomnia.

Cannabis is one of the 50 ‘fundamental herbs’ in traditional Chinese medicine. Records attributed to ‘Emperor Shennong’ in the Pen Ts’ao Ching state that cannabis was used to treat a variety of ailments, and there were also cases of topical hemp oils and teas to be used as pain relief.

An Ancient Chinese surgeon named Hua Tuo was first to use cannabis as an anaesthetic, where he ground up cannabis seeds and mixed it with wine to create a tonic for surgery. It is also said that the establishment of China’s first Medical University during the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907) also extensively studied the medicinal properties of hemp.


In the Lu Shi, we also find Shen Nung teaching the Chinese people to cultivate hemp for cloth.


Chinese armies used hemp bowstrings to allow arrows to travel further, and were proven to be far superior to bamboo bowstrings used by the enemy -- this gave them an edge so big, that monarchs set aside massive plots of land for the cultivation of the cannabis plant, making it the first ever war crop. Hemp for Victory!


Hemp as a fibre is strong, durable, and relatively easy to make and repurpose. Not much has changed in a few thousand years.

Paper has to be one of the most significant inventions of the Chinese. The Chinese were the first to recognize the usefulness of hemp in paper making. In approximately 150 BC, they produced the world’s first paper, completely from hemp. The oldest documents written on paper are Buddhist texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, composed of a mixture of bark and old rags, principally hemp.

According to Dr. Jann Gumbiner, the Chinese made paper by crushing hemp fibers and mulberry tree bark into a pulp and putting the mixture into a tank of water. The tangled fibers rose to the top of the water, were removed, and placed in a mold. After drying, the fibers formed sheets that could be written on.


Inscriptions found from the early Chou Dynasty (700 - 500 B.C.) regarded hemp with negative connotations, implying a stupefying effect.

Pen Ts’ao Ching (compiled 100 A.D.) ‘Ma-fen, if taken in excess will produce hallucinations and if taken long term, allows communication with spirits and devils’

A Taoist Priest attributed to writing Ming-I Pieh Lu noted cannabis was used by necromancers ‘in combination with ginseng to set forward time in order to reveal future events’. I just happen to have some ginseng lying around. Time to go Rick and Morty on all y’all.

2,700 year-old Cannabis Stash Found

In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Experimental Botany, a grave from the Yanghai Tombs in the Gobi Desert belonging to a 35-year old, blue-eyed, Caucasian Shaman was found with 2 pounds of cannabis. According to Dr. Ethan Russo, the plant material has been trimmed to contain only the medicinal and psychoactive parts of the plant, so it’s safe to assume the Shaman wasn’t needing extra clothing material in the afterlife. Unfortunately, the compounds have decomposed over almost 3 millenia, but we know a few people that would still smoke it. I mean, it would be rude not to.


(1) Medical Cannabis, A Short Graphical History: China. Antique Cannabis Book.

(2) Cannabis in the Ancient World. Ernest Abel. (1980).

(3) An Archeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in China. Hui-Lin Li. (1974). Economic Botany.

The People’s History: Hemp and Cannabis. The Thistle, MIT. (2000).

History of Cannabis in Ancient China. Jann Gumbiner. Psychology Today. (2011).

The Religious and Medicinal Uses of Cannabis in China, India, and Tibet. Mia Touw. (1984)