Last month saw the beginning of Year of the Monkey, according to the Shengxiao, or Chinese astrological calendar. Monkeys are known for their curiosity, so we thought it appropriate to take an inquisitive look into how the medical uses of cannabis have been part of Chinese healing culture for what is likely thousands of years.
But whereas the telling of most histories starts in the past and proceeds forward through time, this story will go backward from the present, for reasons that will become apparent.
Recently, it appears China may be preparing itself for something many in the West now deem inevitable: the end of cannabis prohibition and the widespread acceptance of cannabis and its derivatives in the treatment of disease symptoms. Evidence of China’s anticipation is seen in the fact that, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, Chinese businesses have filed over 300 of the approximately 600 worldwide patents related to medical cannabis. Presently, China is already the second-largest producer of industrial hemp, a low-THC strain of Cannabis sativa. However, consuming cannabis remains illegal in China, with severe penalties (even death) for dealing.
What we see then is what is so often seen in China: a complex mixture of the ancient and the ultra-modern. Many of the patents mentioned above can be categorized broadly as herbal medicine, a treatment method practised by the Chinese for thousands of years. Indeed, today it remains common for herbalists to hang in their shops a picture of Shennong, The Red Emperor, who may have lived around 5000 years ago and authored The Great Herbal, a pharmacological book still in use today. The Great Herbal contains the first known mention of utilizing cannabis as medicine.
Although consuming cannabis for recreational purposes has been reported (particularly among young people) in modern China, this is essentially absent in the literature. Whether this is due to censorship or, as some have postulated, that Chinese culture has simply never embraced using cannabis for its euphoric effects, is uncertain.
In fact, we need to go all the way back to the 2nd century CE to find clear evidence of medical practitioners exploiting the psychoactive properties of cannabis. Around that time, the Chinese surgeon Hua Tuo claims to have used a combination of wine and cannabis seeds as an anaesthetic. The earliest authenticated Chinese pharmacopeia, the Materia Medica Sutra warns, “Ma fen (cannabis seed)…if taken in excess will produce hallucinations. If taken over a long term, it makes one communicate with spirits and lightens one’s body.”
Although the oldest surviving Materia Medica Sutra was not printed until the 1st or 2nd century CE, it appears certain to most scholars that it contains knowledge and advice that had either been copied from earlier books, or passed down verbally, generation to generation, for thousands of years. The total absence of previously printed Chinese medical books—given that a standardized Chinese script was widely adopted by 3,500 BCE—remains open to speculation.
Between the printing of the Materia Medica Sutra and the present, references to medical cannabis are few. In the 1500s, Li Shizhen rewrote, edited and modernized the pharmacopeia, The Great Herbal of Medicine, which included references to cannabis, and is still in use today. Another text, from the 6th century, seems to downplay cannabis, claiming, “Ma fen is not much used in prescriptions now-a-days.”
Looking back any farther than the Common Era, archaeologists are faced with little physical evidence for the use of cannabis. In 2008, a tomb of what appears to be a shaman was uncovered in the Gobi Desert (located in modern Mongolia and Northern China). Found in the tomb were nearly two pounds of plant material, confirmed to be cannabis flowers. The body, however, was identified as being a blue-eyed Caucasian man.
Let’s pause here for a moment to consider why the cannabis plant may have attracted attention for more than its food and fibre potential. Cannabis is a dioecious plant, meaning it has sexual organs on separate individuals of the same species. There are male cannabis plants and female cannabis plants. Early Chinese horticulture texts note that, unless the female cannabis plant is exposed to pollen of the male plant, subsequent seed development in the female flower will not occur.
This complementary aspect of cannabis corresponds to the ancient Chinese concept of YIN and YANG. Yin represents the dark, negative female influences and yang the light, positive male influences. The balance of yin and yang is fundamental to much of traditional Chinese medicine, whereby illness is deemed a direct result of an imbalance of the two influences. Indeed, nearly all herbal remedies are directed at achieving a balance of yin and yang. In the case of cannabis, the female parts have come into more common use, almost certainly due to the fact that the female plant produces much more of the active compounds that have been cited as eliciting physiological changes in humans.
Now, back to the history and the reason we started this story in the present. As mentioned earlier, no Chinese medical texts older than the 1st or 2nd century CE have been found. There are reliable references to using hemp as cloth in books from the 3rd century BCE. Prior to then, we enter the realm filled with myth and legend.
There is no proof that the supposed author of The Herbal, Emperor Shennong, even existed. The same goes for two other emperors that frequently appear on herbalists’ posters: Fuxi and Huangdi. The three men are understood by believers to be The Three Celestial Emperors, who ruled 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, and are usually attributed with supernatural powers. The claims are even more dubious due to the fact that what is widely recognized as the founding of the first Chinese dynasties did not occur until the Xia Dynasty, in the 21st century BCE, 2,000 years after the supposed reigns of The Three Celestial Emperors.
The inventions attributable to ancient Chinese culture are simply astounding in their breadth and imagination: paper; the compass; moveable-type printing; and the clock, to name a few. This amazingly rich history of innovation, coupled with surviving texts that claim to copy references from much, much older books, makes it reasonable to conclude that the Chinese, like their neighbours in India, recognized and exploited the medicinal properties of cannabis. That tradition appears to be carried on today, and—with worldwide changes in attitudes regarding medical cannabis and the growing economic openness of the nation—may soon become more important to China than ever before.