Ancient China’s Obsession with Hemp: the World’s First War Crop

Hemp and humanity have cohabited for millennia. In fact, the earliest word for the plant comes to us from China, so far back in time that it predates written history. “Ma” is the oldest word for the hemp plant and, arguably, what infants have actually been attempting to demand from us all along.

Followers of the smoke shop blog might remember last month’s mention of the invention of paper, also by the Chinese, and also out of hemp. We talked about how widespread the plant was throughout Chinese history but the nine hundred word article wasn’t big enough to even scratch the surface of the topic. Last month we also covered the British Navy’s obsession with the plant for National Security, but today we’ll discover they weren’t the first to use hemp for military stability – Sun Tzu for the win!

Hemp for National Security

Hemp was one of the earliest fibers ever cultivated – its influence catalogued in number of the oldest written works of human history.

“The oldest Chinese agricultural treatise is the Xia Xiao Zheng written circa the 16th century BC which names hemp as one of the main crops grown in ancient China (Yu 1987).”

Cultivation of the hemp plant was a carefully studied science. Every conceivable factor in benefiting production was considered and documented in numerous volumes.

“Ancient Chinese hemp cultivation techniques of collecting seeds, sowing time, field controls, and their influence on hemp quality were also recorded in the Essential Arts for the People or Qi Min Yao Shu which is a precious legacy of ancient Chinese science written 1,400 years ago. The Essential Arts for the People systematically summarized the ancient Chinese techniques of hemp cultivation.”

Hemp was valued as a food, fibre and medicine but it was the Chinese to also discover it’s unusual strength. Traditionally, bowstrings were made of bamboo, but the advancement of hemp for this purpose created a military strength that would soon dominate its political opponents for centuries to come. Stronger bowstrings meant archers could propel their arrows farther than opposing armies. Out of effective range for their own weapons, those with weaker chording were helpless to the barrage of their enemies arrows.

“So important was the hemp bowstring that Chinese monarchs of old set aside large portions of land exclusively for hemp, the first agricultural war crop.”

Hemp, again, nurtured humans in their progress – even in war.

Mother, Hemp, Scold and Horse: What Do These Words Have In Common?

Well, it turns out they’re all Mandarin translations for “Ma”, depending on your inflection.

“In the ancient Chinese works The Book of Songs (a book of culture and social customs) and The Annals (written by Bu-Wei Leu during the Warring States period (476 to 221 BC), there are records of six kinds of crops that the ancient Chinese generally planted. These crops were named “he, su, dao, shu, ma, and mai”. ‘Ma’ is Cannabis hemp.”

Let’s take a moment to consider this: hemp was the go-to fibre for clothing, bowstring, and even shoes. The seeds of the plant simultaneously provided a dense nutritional supply, and the anti-inflammatory and antibiotic properties of the leaves and flowers could actually treat infections and remedy other common ailments. It’s no wonder that early humans would find this plant nothing less than miraculous, even without the knowledge that proper consumption could induce visions.

The medical applications for hemp are likewise recorded in a plethora of ancient Chinese texts.

Liu Chi-nu, The Father of Medical Marijuana?

Long before the days of vape shops and broad spectrum hemp extract, cannabis was used for medicine. The earliest Chinese story of this type of use comes to us from Lui Chi-nu, a (likely fictitious) former Emperor.

As a young man Liu Chi-nu was cutting down hemp when he came across a snake. Fearing the snake might attack, Liu shot the serpent with an arrow. The next day, he returned to the location and discovered two boys mulling hemp leaves with a mortar and pestle. Upon inquiring, they told him they were preparing a medication for their master, apparent the snake that Lui Chi-nu had shot the day before. They told him they would not seek retribution for the injury because Lui Chi-nu was destined to become a great emperor.

Lui then chased them away for being foolish but later used the remedy with such success that he celebrated the medicine and popularized it’s use throughout the kingdom.

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