The History of Cannabis in Ancient China

Statue of Chinese elephant Ganesha surrounded by smoke

Some Baby Boomers seem to think they were the first to discover the joys of marijuana. The truth, however, is that human history with cannabis goes back thousands of years. The first culture to document the use of the cannabis plant was ancient China where it was originally used to make practical items. By the time of the Han dynasty, (202 BC – 220 AD), cannabis was being widely used for medicinal purposes and personal non-medical purposes as well. In this post, the team at our Northglenn head shop takes a deep dive into the ancient Chinese relationship with marijuana.

The Many Ways the Ancient Chinese Employed and Enjoyed Cannabis

The pre-dynastic Chinese of 4,000 or so years ago were well acquainted with cannabis and its cousin, the hemp plant and put both to use in a variety of practical ways. From that point onward the relationship between the Chinese and this multifaceted plant expanded and diversified. Here are just some of the ways the ancient Chinese employed and enjoyed cannabis.

They Used Cannabis To Make Clothing

Before ancient Chinese healers began using cannabis to treat a variety of medical conditions, Chinese artisans were using the fibers to create durable, comfortable clothing. Some of the oldest non-animal skin clothing ever found was hemp clothing found in China and dated to nearly 10,000 years ago. Due to its durability hemp was also used to create shoes.

They Used Cannabis To Make Weapons

Cannabis bombs? Not quite. However, the cannabis plant did play an important role in the advancement of bow design. The earliest Chinese bows from about 3,500 years ago used bowstrings made out of bamboo fibers. A real advancement in bow construction occurred when they discovered hemp fibers to be much more durable and began incorporating them into bow construction. Hemp fibers became so important to dynastic leaders that they set aside large tracts of land for hemp cultivation.

They Added Cannabis to Their Diet

Not content to use the cannabis plant to make clothes and bowstrings, the ancient Chinese also figured out that hemp seeds produce a tasty oil that can be used for cooking. But it wasn’t like they were making the ancient equivalent of edibles. Instead, they used the oil to fry food (and also used it to power lamps). While it no longer enjoys the popularity in the kitchen it once did, some individuals in China still cook with hemp oil, comparing its mild taste to that of olive oil.

They Made Paper out of Cannabis

While paper did not come into widespread use in Europe until the 11th century AD the Chinese were using hemp paper a thousand years before that. It is unclear exactly who invented hemp paper but a colorful legend has a dynastic court official named Cai Lun inventing it and demonstrating it to other court officials who were skeptical of his invention. In time, though, they would come around.

They Adopted Cannabis as Part of Chinese Traditional Medicine

By the later stages of the Han Dynasty (around 200 AD) traditional Chinese healers began using cannabis as an anesthetic and later as a treatment for a variety of medical conditions. It was around this same time that the first cryptic references to aristocrats using cannabis for recreational purposes began to surface, along with the first pot pipes, (although they didn’t have an equivalent to our online head shop back then). During the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) use of cannabis was first taught in Chinese medical schools.

Cannabis Was Used in Burial Rituals

Archeological digs suggest that around the same time the ancient Chinese were using hemp fiber to make clothes, they also began using it in burial rituals. Intact cannabis plants have been discovered covering dead bodies, while in other cases burial shrouds were crafted from hemp. Spent cannabis seeds have also been discovered with bodies in other Chinese burial sites from the same period suggesting that the departed was given an intoxicating send-off.

Confucius Was Familiar With Cannabis

Confucius is one of the most important and influential philosophers who ever lived. His principles provide an underpinning to much East Asian thought to this day. In several 6th century BC texts attributed to Confucious, the hemp plant is discussed as an important source of raw materials for the creation of clothing and other items.


The cannabis family is a large one that includes hemp – which contains virtually no psychoactive compounds and is mostly put to utilitarian use – and marijuana which as we all know is one of the best vehicles for achieving a pleasant buzz ever discovered. After decades of existing on the periphery of society weed has begun to enjoy widespread acceptance. But you can be sure that any use we’ve found for cannabis was already discovered thousands of years ago by the ancient Chinese.

If you’re looking for a way to optimize your cannabis experience here in the 21st century, stop by 710 Pipes smoke shop in Denver or Northglenn. You can also visit our online smoke shop where you will find our entire line of bongs, heady glass, and other cannabis paraphernalia available for order at competitive prices.

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