The History and Mystics of Cannabis

The History and Mystics of Cannabis

From China to the World


The world recently celebrated the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Ox has now begun. The celebrations were a bit muted and not as merry as they usually are, owing to the pandemic still raging across the globe. And while we do have the Chinese to thank for the pompous Lunar New Year celebration, there is one more thing that traces its origin to China – cannabis.

The history of Cannabis in China

The cannabis plant is believed to have evolved at the dawn of civilization and is likely the first fiber plant that was ever cultivated. Cannabis or hemp, as it is more commonly called, has been in China for over twelve thousand years now and was commonly used to make fishing nets, ropes, clothes, and even paper. The Chinese are believed to be the original inventors of hemp paper. The seeds of the cannabis plant and the cannabis oil were used for food. The oldest records of hemp date back to the time when man began farming. Thus, man has been cultivating hemp for as long as he has known how to cultivate anything. Some archeologists even believe that cannabis may have been the world’s very first agricultural crop and would have shaped the entire human civilization.

Why is the Chinese connection of cannabis important?

The Chinese word for hemp is Má. It was commonly used to refer to cannabis used for medicinal purposes back in the ancient times since 2700 BCE. Our oldest records of hemp date back to those time. Interestingly, the art of writing was only invented about 5000 years ago, but the name Má has been around for longer than that, and in many instances, the word “Má” has been found mentioned in many ancient Chinese poetry and prose. The ancient Chinese have used hemp for multiple purposes cloth, tea, and bows were some of the most common uses of hemp in China for centuries. The ancient Chinese also used hemp for various therapeutic purposes.

Cannabis and Traditional Chinese Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine is one of the oldest forms of medicine, and it takes a more philosophical & holistic approach to health. Among other things, herbs and specific dietary measures play an indispensable role in traditional Chinese medicine. Some of the most popular herbs used in it are Reishi mushrooms, ginseng, and you guessed it right, cannabis. Cannabis has been an integral part of Chinese medicine for as long as the latter has existed and is considered to be a fundamental herb in the school of medicine. Old medicinal texts from China have talked about cannabis being used for the treatment of over 100 ailments including rheumatism, gout, malaria, mental illnesses, blood pressure, heart ailments, and many more. Cannabis was mixed with other therapeutic ingredients depending on the ailment, to create medicines for the ailments. It also played an indispensable role in pain management treatments.

Cannabis and ancient Tao rituals

Taoism is a very common religion in China, and cannabis holds a special place in ancient Tao rituals. It was commonly used in Tao rituals with another common herb – ginseng to foresee the future. Taoism believed cannabis could cast its spirit forward in time and reveal valuable secrets about what the future holds. A 5th century BCE text mentioned that if one would consume cannabis with ginseng, it would give the person preternatural knowledge of events & occurrences that would take place in the future. Another 6th century text claims that if one desires to command demonic apparitions to appear before himself/herself, he or she simply needs to constantly consume the inflorescence of the hemp plant.

Ancient Taoist texts also mention the use of cannabis in specialized ritual incense burners called censers. In line with the core Tao beliefs, cannabis was used to tune out selfish desires and bring in feelings of well-being. In fact, Taoism is perhaps the only religion in the world that has personified cannabis to a deity. Cannabis was portrayed as a Goddess, called ‘Ma Ku’, meaning ‘Miss Hemp’ or ‘Hemp Lady’ – a beautiful fair goddess with bird’s claws for feet. She was commonly associated with Mao Shan meditation techniques. Her portrayals often used imagery of time distortions.

Taoism restricted the consumption of cannabis to religious occasions and only select people were permitted to consume it. However, with time, Confucianism began gaining popularity in China, and people embraced it as their new religion, leaving Taoism behind. By extension, the importance of cannabis also went down.

The journey from China to the world

In ancient and medieval history, cannabis had been considered a very helpful and beneficial drug, with historical records of its usage by the Chinese, to the Vikings and Germanic tribes to relieve pain and treat a range of ailments. China and Siberia are considered to be the seat of cannabis usage in those times, and it is believed that it was from here that the famed plant spread to the world.

The farmers along the coast of China, took the plant along with them to Korea in around 2000 BCE. From China, the cannabis also made its way to India somewhere between 2000 to 1000 BCE, then ruled by the Aryans where it finds mentions in ancient poetry and prose. The Synthians – a nomadic Indo-European community is believed to have introduced hemp to the Middle East, as well as to Southeastern Russia & Ukraine. The Germanic tribes brought the drug to their homeland – Germany, while Anglo-Saxon troupes led to the spread of hemp to Britain. Historical evidence discovered from Viking ships has indicated the presence of hemp in the remains, indicating that the Vikings took cannabis along with them as they sailed to shores far and wide. Traders and troupes were the primary sources for hemp’s spread to regions around the world and archeological evidence says it was found in wooden artifacts buried with people who were living along the renowned Silk Route. They took it along with them to Africa and South America, from where it was eventually carried northward to the North Americas. It is believed that Mexican immigrants brought cannabis along with them from their homeland as they were escaping the Mexican Revolution of 1910-11.

Figure: The Spread of Marijuana through the World
Figure: The Spread of Marijuana through the WorldSource: Barney Warf, University of Kansas

Hemp in China today

In China today, cannabis is regarded as a very dangerous drug, and possession is very strictly punished. However, industrial hemp is legal in a few provinces, limited to production, processing, and sale, and it is also one of the leading producers of hemp in the world. The most common product made from it in China is cannabidiol or CBD which is used as an ingredient from therapeutic products to bath bombs and pet food.

While the Chinese has a very firm stance on adult recreational usage of cannabis, we still have the Chinese to thank for this wonder plant and all the ways it helps us. China has also developed special hybrid species of the ‘green gold’ as cannabis is often regarded which are more tolerant to changing climates.

The next time you buy a CBD product, think about how it reached there – that you are not just holding a simple product, but a slice of history, a product that has shaped civilizations, and has been cultivated for as long as man has known to farm. And it wouldn’t have been possible without the Chinese.

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