The Early History of Cannabis – Part 4 of 4

The Early History of Cannabis – Part 4 of 4

History Of Cannabis

Hemp in Literature (3,000 BCE through 100 CE)

Last week we hopped the continent, taking a quick jaunt through ancient Japan and Korea before coming back to China. And oh my how things change! While we were away, a not so small revolution took place in ancient China, marking the transition from warring states to organized society. We’ll explore this in much greater depth next blog post, but suffice it to say that the peoples inhabiting the Chinese mainland entered the period between 2852 BCE and 2070 BCE without a written language, disparate, and divided, and somehow came out of it A) unified under an emperor and B) with a standardized written language. Because it predates recorded history, we can’t say for sure what actually went on during this period. The ancient Chinese oral tradition maintains that this cultural transformation took place under the rule of bear-fighting and dragon-riding emperors, and that seems pretty freaking radical. So we’ll stick with that.


Dragon Over Water
Flying off on a golden dragon sounds pretty alright to me. Where do I sign up?


Book Of Odes

Thusly we’re taken to the Book of Odes. The Book of Odes (or “Xi Jing”) is said to have been compiled by Confucius in 500 BCE (Western Zhou Dynasty) as a collection of classical Chinese poetry. Most notably, some of the poems contained in this book are said to date back to 2350 BCE! However, this must be taken with a grain of salt; keep in mind that 2350 BCE still predates a standardized written Chinese language. As well, the Chinese people at this time had some peculiar copyrighting and dating customs (namely “none whatsoever”). Works from various poets were cut, modified, inserted between lines in other poems, re-arranged, or otherwise messed about with, and all without any recorded dates. This has made tracing the history of the Xi Jing a bit of a nightmare, to say the least.  Although it makes extensive reference to the production of industrial hemp, it can’t be conclusively identified as the first written record of hemp cultivation – that honour falls to the Xia Xiao Zheng.

The Xia Xiao Zheng was an astronomical calendar, the first of its kind to ever be produced in China (and if you’re really keeping score, the entire world)! This treatise was published ca. 1600 BCE, and implied a prominent imperial presence in the daily lives of ordinary citizens. The Xia Xiao Zheng noted the best seasons for sowing and harvesting various crops that were important in China, including millet, wheat, beans, rice and hemp. Hemp was listed as an essential crop, and seems to have been one of the largest agricultural outputs of that time period.

A quick aside here; in the Xia Xiao Zheng, hemp is referenced in the past tense, with heavy subtext that it had been around and well-known for a very long time. While we can’t corroborate this with any other written source, it backs up the idea that hemp was already in use before this period, and had been for thousands of years! In the coming posts, you’ll notice a pattern of this. More often than not, an ancient society will, in their first written treatises on agriculture or medicine, mention cannabis as if it’s a historical staple.

From the Xia Xiao Zheng, we jump 1400 years ahead to another important book: the Book of Rites, also known as the Classic of Rites or Lijing. Like the Book of Odes, the Book of Rites was a collection of confucian ideas dating to the Zhou dynasty, although it was written during the later Qin dynasty (ca. 22 BCE). The Book of Rites served as a collection of customs, confucian social forms, administration, and ceremonial rites of the Zhou peoples. In the book, hemp is described as the cloth of the peasant masses, to be be worn by almost all, used to swaddle newborns (hemp is naturally antiseptic and antibacterial), and to serve as a sacred funerary rite – mourners were to be clothed in hemp, and the deceased were to be covered with a hempen shroud. The fibrous output of the hemp plant was so incomparable that it could clothe an entire population, swaddle their young, and bury their dead, with an abundance of grain and oil left behind for those still living.


Chinese Tapestry
Chinese Tapestry – Hemp was so vital to ancient Chinese society that they swaddled newborns and shrouded the dead with the same woven hemp fabric.


A new Millennium

At the turn of the millennium, across most of China, Japan, and Korea, people were farming, fishing, hunting, playing, meeting, eating, tending gardens, paddies, and orchards, and probably going to bed at night in hemp clothing. And in the year 100 (CE), the first paper durable enough to hold writing would be manufactured in China. One of the integral components was hemp fibre – hemp would bind the first written works ever collected on paper. When the Gutenberg press was invented in the year 1440 (CE), hemp paper would be used to form the first ever machine-printed bible, and to disseminate much of the information that has shaped and continues to shape society as we know it.

To this day, many parts of the world continue to farm hemp extensively. Like the plant itself, the story of hemp is enduring.

But the history of the cannabis plant is not singular, rather an amalgam of practical, medicinal, and spiritual; the story most assuredly doesn’t end with hemp. Next time, we’ll dive into how and when the spiritual and medicinal use of psychoactive cannabis came on the scene in the Yamnaya, Chinese, and Scythian cultures. Trust me, it gets wild. I mean, there are hotbox steam baths. You don’t want to miss it!

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The Early History of Cannabis Part 1

The Early History of Cannabis Part 2

The Early History of Cannabis Part 3

BCE: Before Common Era, aka “BC” (Before Christ). BCE designates any year prior to 0 CE (AD), the turn of the millennium.
CE: Common Era, aka “AD” (Anno Domini – the Year of the Lord). The Common Era begins at 0 CE and continues to the present year, 2018 CE.
Ca: Ca. is shorthand for circa, which in the study of history is used to identify any approximal dates.
Cannabis Sativa: The species name for cannabis. Indica, Afghanica, and Ruderalis are subspecies. Hemp refers to minimally psychoactive male cannabis plants grown for food and/or fibre.
Paleolithic: Informally known as the “Stone Age,” the paleolithic period designates the vast amount of time between the earliest examples of stone tools, c. 3.3 Million BCE, and the advent of agriculture in the neolithic period, ca. 10,200 BCE.
Mesolithic: The transitional period succeeding the paleolithic and preceding the neolithic. The dates of the mesolithic period vary from region to region, and the mesolithic designator is not typically applied outside of Northern Europe and areas of the Levant.
Neolithic: The beginnings of organized and sedentary human societies. This period of time commenced with the advent of agriculture, and featured widespread and independent domestication of crops and animals. Eventually, the neolithic period would give way to the Copper and Bronze Ages.
Sedentary: A society inhabiting permanent or semi-permanent settlements.
Nomadic: A roaming society without permanent settlements.

About the author

Lana Tong is an aspiring Endocannabinoid Psychopharmacologist and Squirrel Behavioral Therapist based in Victoria, British Columbia. She’s passionate about cannabis as a medicine, entheogen, food, fiber crop, and so much more. Lana hopes to one day swim in a pool filled with organic CBD-infused coconut oil – we all have dreams, right?

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