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Hemp in Ancient Chinese Medicine

There is a very long history of hemp use in China. From fibers to seeds and other parts of the plant mentioned in Chinese texts that are almost 2000 years old. Traditional Chinese medicine is one of the most ancient systems in the world and is being practiced for more than 2500 years. It is still in use today in China and all over the world in almost unchanged form. Hemp in Chinese medicine has a particularly special role.

Chinese medicine has been used long before the invention of modern medical equipment. It developed and spread based on observation of the natural world interacting with the human body. Ancient physicians did not have access to pharmaceutical resources of our time such as antibiotics and strong painkillers. They developed healing practices including acupuncture, massage, and plant medicine. There is a plant that played a key role in traditional Chinese medicine throughout the history and is slowly gaining back its importance. This is hemp. The mentions of hemps can be found throughout the classical Chinese literature, including many famous texts in philosophy, poetry, agriculture, and medicine. While fiber rich hemp in ancient China was used to produce clothes, rope, paper, and fishing nets, other parts were commonly used in traditional medicine.

hemp in chinese medicine


In modern Chinese medicine, cannabis seeds are being used as a popular remedy for their mild laxative effects. Hemp seeds are the only part of the plant, which is regularly used for medicinal purpose today. However, in history they used all parts of the plant – flower, leaves, and roots.

In ancient medical texts, flower is most commonly mentioned part besides seeds. They most probably used them for their high cannabinoid concentration such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). They were used to treat a wide range of medical conditions throughout centuries. These uses have been recorded and well documented in various texts.

If we examine over 2000-year-old documents, we can learn about the use of cannabis in Chinese medicine history. Furthermore, it can teach us more about the use of it in the modern world.


The first mention of hemp in Chinese medicine occurred in the Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica. It was written in the first or second century. The work is attributed to a well-known emperor, farmer, and herbalist Shennong. Even though it was written a long time ago it is still in clinical use today.

As described in the text, cannabis has acrid and balanced properties. It is said to govern the five taxations (excessive use of eyes, excessive lying, sitting, standing, and exercise). It is also said to rule the seven damages (over-eating, cold food and drink, climatic extremes, rage, fatigue, grief, and fear). Furthermore, it is said to benefit the five viscera (the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and spleen). Cannabis is also believed to descend blood and cold qi.

It is clear that cannabis was considered a cure for a wide range of conditions, with many positive effects. Yang Huating interpreted the descending blood and cold qi statement, that it means to quicken the blood. Therefore, he recommended cannabis for various conditions including, headaches, menstrual problems, itching, convulsions, and dry cough. The original text states that overuse of cannabis can make a person see ghosts and run about frantically.

Most probably these references to cannabis psychoactive properties. It is also interesting that the Chinese goddess Ma Gu is connected to longevity and elixir of life. The first word “Má” means cannabis and Ma Gu literally means “hemp/cannabis maiden”. Moreover, the word Ma is also a part of the Chinese word for anesthesia (mentioned below).

Magu hemp in chinese medicine
Ma Gu, Source: Ancient Origins

Cannabis in Chinese Medicine as an Anesthetic

In around third century, a famous Chinese physician Hua Tuo was developing new surgical techniques and anesthesia. He created a recipe called Ma Fei San, which was used as an anesthetic during procedures. The name includes the word Ma, meaning cannabis in Chinese. Due to this, many Chinese academics claim that cannabis was the primary ingredient in this recipe. After Hua Tuo’s death, the recipe was lost and also the hope for real evidence to confirm this theory.

However, cannabis anesthetic properties were confirmed in the text by author Bian Que. A mixture of cannabis and other herbs brought the patients to a state, where they do not feel any pain and also does not have any side effects. This was a testimonial on cannabis numbing properties.

Cannabis in Chines Medicine for Pain Relief

At around sixth century, additional content was added to the original work of Materia Medica of divine farmers. The author Tao Hongjing adds a description of cannabis. In the description he mentions that cannabis can “break accumulations, relieve impediment, and disperse pus”.

Another well known Chinese physician Sun Simiao suggested, that cannabis can be used for pain relief. He suggested crushing the leaves for using the juice extract to treat broken bones.

Another writing for pain relief properties comes from an illustrated classical version of Materia Medica. It was printed in the year 1070. Su Song recommends wine with cannabis seeds to mitigate pain. He claims that after 10 servings the pain will disappear, and these effects cannot be surpassed.

Cannabis in Chinese Medicine for Mental Conditions

Cannabis psychoactive properties were recognized already in the first century. Throughout history, cannabis was often mentioned for treating mental conditions. The first recipe was written by Sun Simiao in the seventh century and was worth a thousand gold. In it he suggests the use of cannabis for wind withdrawal. In Chinese medicine this was a category of mental illness characterized by depression and the need to be alone. Later texts from the 20th century mentioning cannabis use for mental disorders include Li Chengh’s “Pharmacognosy” and Yang Huating’s illustrated Analysis of Medicines. These texts present a variety of conditions that cannabis can help with including agitation, hysteria, and insomnia.

There is some overlap with the current use of CBD for mental conditions. These include CBD for anxiety, OCD, and PTSD.

hemp in chinese medicine
Source: Dutch Harvest


Cannabis is still being grown in many parts of the country mostly for its fibers. Other types of cannabis are nowadays illegal in China. The only part of the plant currently being used in traditional Chinese medicine are the seeds. They are crushed, boiled, and the resulting liquid is then consumed. It serves as a treatment for constipation.

Many traditional uses of cannabis in Chinese medicine were set aside. On contrary, more and more people are accepting the medicinal use of cannabis and its compounds. There are a number of new evidence and testimonials every day, that prove the potential of cannabis for treating various conditions.


Our endocannabinoid system includes two receptors (CB1 and CB2), which can be found throughout the body. We now know that phytocannabinoids such as CBD and THC affect our endocannabinoid system and help maintaining our body’s homeostasis. In ancient China, physicians were not aware of this system. However, the idea of keeping our body and mind in harmony is the main part of Chinese medicine. The fragile relationship between yin and yang, cold and heat, rest and activity, and others, is crucial for our well-being.

The main goal of Chinese medicine is the promotion of self-healing to regain our homeostasis. This idea is not far from the endocannabinoid system function. Some studies even suggest, that one of the ways acupuncture works is through the endocannabinoid system.


Cannabis is a plant used for healing for millennia. Their effects are very diverse including pain mitigation, anesthetic, and treating mental conditions, seizures, and cramps. In modern China the use of cannabis in traditional Chinese medicine is very limited (mostly seeds). However, medicinal cannabis and CBD products are becoming more popular by the day worldwide. Furthermore, every day new research confirms the positive effects of cannabis on our body and mind.

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DragonWear Team

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