Though it might be pushing it to say 4/20 has become a mainstream holiday, it is certainly accurate to call it a widely celebrated one – especially here on the west coast. In recent years, cannabis, and all things related to it, have made a comeback after a period of prohibition and taboo - in a big way. Cannabis is one of the most used "drugs" in the world today, and to understand the present and the future, an understanding of the past is always key.

Hemp has been at the agricultural heart of a number of cultures up until the 20th century, from the sails of the ships of European imperialism, to the clothing of choice for peasants in traditional China. Medicinal cannabis has also been utilized in traditional cultures throughout history and the recreational and spiritual effects have long been known. How did we get where we are in terms of the relationship between cannabis and humanity? Where and when did the history of humans and the history of cannabis first meet, and become entangled? Why was it so central to human life? And why has it become so marginalized in many societies in recent years?

The exact geographic origins of cannabis are unknown. Generally, though, most studies place its origins either near the Irtysh River in Mongolia and Siberia, south of Lake Baikal in the Gobi Desert, or in the Takla Makan desert in China’s Xinjiang province, just to the south. In this part of the world, it still occurs in the wild on land which has been disturbed in floods or erosion. It’s also abundant in the wild in the more populated Yellow and Yangtze river valleys in China, in western central Asia between the Altai Mountains and the Caucasus, and in Himalayan foothills such as the famous Hindu Kush. These spots provide the perfect climates for wild cannabis, and strong winds in deserts like the Gobi and the Takla Makan have allowed the seeds to be easily distributed to surrounding regions. Determining the exact wild origins of cannabis is complicated by the fact that as one of the earliest plants ever cultivated by humans, many areas of current wild growth may have spread from nearby cultivation in this prehistoric era. 

Due to thriving in nitrogen rich soils, cannabis would have made an appearance directly in the path of human development at the very dawn of civilization, when humans began to till soil and establish permanent settlements. Appearing in the recently tilled fields on farms, and in the refuse heaps of the first towns and villages, it would have been only a matter of time before it garnered the interest of these new farmers. Human cultivation of cannabis most likely began in western China, near the drier desert areas where cannabis originated in the wild. Early trade and war quickly spread cannabis cultivation to nearby societies. It spread quickly. Early recorded archaeological evidence of human use of hemp comes from the island of Taiwan, off the coast of China - pottery debris with patterns impressed from hemp rope. The pottery shards from this site near Taipei date from between 10,000 B.C to 3,000 B.C – as a point of reference, the Great Pyramids of Egypt were built around 2560 B.C. The use of cannabis in the far east probably predates the dawn of western civilization as we know it.  

Discoveries in twisting fibers to make them stronger ended human reliance on animal skins as a sole source of clothing – here in China, hemp fibers were the first to be used for this purpose, no doubt valued for their strength and durability. The earliest evidence of hemp clothing comes from the Yellow River valley, from around 5000 B.C. Early religious texts including The Book of Rites from the 2nd Century B.C, from this area, mandate the use of hemp for funeral garments. Ancient Chinese society is also credited with the invention of paper, in 105 A.D – also with the use of hemp fibers. Over time, cannabis in the form of hemp fabrics and fibers became a ubiquitous part of life in ancient China, and the plants themselves made their way into early healing rituals meant to remove demons from the body of an ill patient. Chinese archers even made bowstrings from hemp, owing to its extreme durability. For the classical world, China was often known as “The Land of Mulberry and Hemp” – and for its unparalleled bowmen.



With its ubiquity and Its ritual use throughout the ancient era, it was only a matter of time before medicinal and spiritual consumption of cannabis took hold in China. Though already used by shamans and medicine men in the form of talismans and incense, Emperor Shen Yung who lived in the third millennium B.C is credited with beginning the study of medicinal cannabis as we know it. Unsatisfied with the unreliability of shamanic practices, he began taking the study of Chinese plant medicines into his own hands, testing many plants himself. Eventually, he poisoned himself, turned green, and died - but not before compiling the earliest versions of Pen T’sao Ching – an early pharmacopeia which went on to become the standard reference for ancient Chinese medicine. It recommends a hemp elixir, probably referring to a tea of the leaves and flowers, to remedy conditions ranging from malaria to gout. Shen Yung also noticed the greater medicinal value of female plants, and by the Qi Dynasty around 500 A.D (roughly the time of the fall of Rome) the removal of male plants was a noted public ceremony. One 2nd Century surgeon was reported to have performed major invasive surgeries supposedly painlessly, using an anesthetic composed of cannabis resin and wine. Shen Yung himself went on to be worshipped as a legendary, god like figure – his statues and idols traditionally depicted green.

Over the course of this time period, the ancient Chinese became familiar with the psychoactive properties of “Ma” as it was called – a name that refers to having both male and female – Yin and Yang – properties in the eyes of traditional Chinese medicine. As in American society in the 20th century, some frowned on these psychedelic effects as “liberators of sin.” Texts warned that although consumption of cannabis seeds could lead one to “communicate with the spirits”, consuming too many could result in “seeing demons”. By 600 B.C Taoism was becoming widespread in Chinese culture and this new, nature oriented religion tended to view intoxication in general as anti-social behavior. Despite some Taoist priests using cannabis incense to spur visions, cannabis use fell out of favor over the centuries. A culture based on Confucian social fabric and Taoist ideals of order became increasingly dismissive of intoxication generally. Alcohol and opium use were already problematic in Chinese society, so as is often the case throughout history, cannabis was lumped in to this category of “intoxicants”, and saddled with negative connotations – despite known medical uses, and a subculture of devoted spiritual adherents.

Recreational cannabis in China came to be frowned upon as society became more hierarchical and structured, moving into the middle ages. However, hemp fabrics never lost their primacy to Chinese civilization – considered a humble, peasant fabric, white hemp clothing is still the traditional funerary garb in China today. As shamanism and early Chinese medicine evolved to mix with more structured religious practices, the role of cannabis in Chinese medicine became less central. Today, as a result of increasingly conservative and restrictive Chinese society over the centuries, as well as more recent western influence, cannabis is strictly controlled in modern China. Despite uneven implementation across China’s diverse cultures and ethnicities, modern China’s draconian drug laws are often enforced with brutal crackdowns. By any measure China has a historically love/hate relationship with the cannabis plant. However, before we go feeling superior about the evils of “communist” China, it is important to remember that the U.S is only just beginning to evolve beyond such positions. China’s less-than-a-year sentences for cannabis possession don’t compare to decades long prison sentences the 50s here in the U.S, or even the maximum sentences in many states today. The world needs to evolve into a new era of cannabis tolerance together – China, the U.S, and much of the world could learn from the knowledge of ancient Chinese medicine when considering cannabis reform.

Though suffering a decrease in popularity and an increase in social taboo in middle ages China, the seed had already long since been planted (so to speak) to take the rest of the world by storm. In nearby India, to the southwest, cannabis encountered a very different animistic pre-Hindu culture. The more fluid social fabric at that point, and the nature religion of these cultures at the time led to lasting and widespread popularity of both medicinal and recreation cannabis – still commonly found in India, known today as bhang – the subject of the next Origins of Cannabis column.