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marijuana seeds used as food ancient china

Hemp has attracted a lot of attention over the last few years, mainly because of the rising popularity of CBD supplements. But hemp is really nothing new. In fact, it is believed to be one of the earliest plants cultivated by humankind.

The Chinese referred to hemp as “ma” (麻). Translations of this vary, with some sources suggesting it means “plant with two parts”, alluding to the fact that cannabis plants can be male or female. In medical texts, cannabis and hemp are sometimes referred to as “da ma” (大麻), which some sources either translate as “great hemp” or “great numbness” depending on the context.


Cannabis played a central role in religion and spirituality in India and surrounding regions. It was mentioned in various ancient texts including the Atharva Veda, which describes cannabis as one of five essential plants. According to Dr. Uma Dhanabalan from Harvard University, the Vedic texts claimed cannabis could be used to improve memory, fight leprosy, and much more. Cannabis was also believed to be the favourite food of the Hindu god Shiva.

The Chinese also used cannabis and hemp as medicines. The practices of ancient Chinese medicine are attributed to Emperor Shennong, a mythical emperor who is said to have introduced the Chinese people to herbal medicines. The best-known work credited to Shennong is the Shennong Bencaojing, an ancient book containing over 360 entries of plants and their medicinal properties.

Other cannabis-derived substances such as bhang (a milk drink made with cannabis), charas (a type of hand-rolled hashish), and ganja (cannabis flower) also played key roles in the religious and spiritual cultures of these regions, and they still do so today.

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During the second century A.D., the Chinese surgeon, Hua T’o, began to use cannabis as an anesthesia. He combined cannabis resin with wine (ma-yo) and used it to reduce pain during surgery. He performed painful organ drafts, resectioning of the intestines, loin incisions, and chest incisions while the patient was anesthetized with ma-yo.

Ma was a unique drug because it was both feminine, or yin, and masculine, or yang. Yin represented the weak, passive, and negative female influence in nature while yang represented the strong, active, and positive male force. When yin and yang were in balance, the body was in harmony and healthy. When yin and yang were out of balance, the body was in a state of disequilibrium and ill. Realizing that the female plant produced more medicine, the Chinese cultivated it instead of the male plant. Ma was used to treat absences of yin, such as female weaknesses (menstruation), gout, rheumatism, malaria, beri-beri, constipation, and absentmindedness (Abel, 1980).

Cannabis Sativa is an old plant with a long history. The word, sativa, comes from Latin and means “sown” or “cultivated.” And, in fact, the hemp plant, Cannabis Sativa, has been cultivated by humans for thousands of years. Cultivated primarily for its strength as a fiber and for its medicinal uses, it has even been grown for food. Some of the earliest archeological hemp evidence, about 10,000 B.C., comes from rope imprints on broken Chinese pottery. Fragments of hemp cloth have also been found in Chinese burial chambers dating from the Chou Dynasty (1122-249 B.C.). In addition to archeological evidence, written documents refer to hemp as a source of clothing. For example, The Shu King, a book dating to about 2350 B.C., refers to the soil in Shantung as rich with silk and hemp while ancient poetry mentions young girls weaving hemp into clothing (Abel, 1980).

Cannabis Sativa is an old plant with a long history.

So, the Chinese used the hemp plant for rope, clothing, bowstrings, paper, and, of course, medicine. The ancient emperor, Shen-Nung (c.2700 B.C.), is known as the Father of Chinese Medicine. Because he was a good farmer and concerned about his suffering subjects, he looked to plants for cures. According to legend, Shen-Nung tried poisons and their antidotes on himself and then compiled the medical encyclopedia called, Pen Ts’ao. The Pen Ts’ao list hundreds of drugs derived from vegetable, animal, and mineral sources. Among these drugs is the plant cannabis, “ma.”

Then, there is paper. Yes, paper. Paper is probably one of the most significant Chinese inventions. Fragments of paper containing hemp fiber have been found in Chinese graves dating to the first century B.C. 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. The Chinese kept paper making a secret for many centuries. Eventually, the secret became known to the Japanese during the 5th century A.D. and finally to the Arabs through Chinese prisoners in the 9th century. For some fascinating images of this ancient Chinese craft of paper making, follow this link.

The Chinese also relied on hemp for warfare. Due to its strength and durability, Chinese archers made bowstrings from hemp. Because these hemp bowstrings were stronger than the enemy’s bamboo ones, the Chinese arrows could fly further. This was a large advantage in war. In fact, hemp was so important that Chinese monarchs allocated large portions of land specifically for growing hemp—the first war crop.

Cannabis was a multipurpose plant to the ancient Chinese. It has been cultivated and used for over 4,000 years. It was used for war, writing, food, and medicine but there is very little mention of its psychoactive properties by the Chinese. It wasn’t until India came upon cannabis that it became a widespread religious and medicinal intoxicant.