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).
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.
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.
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."
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).
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.
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.
Abel, E.L. (1980). Marijuana, The First Twelve Thousand Years. New York: Plenum Press.