The term “landrace” refers to a cannabis strain that has been naturally adapted to its specific environment, over many generations. Chinese landrace cannabis is believed to have originated in several regions across the country, including the Yunnan Province, the Tibetan Plateau, and the Silk Road.

Cannabis specimens dating back 2500 years ago have been unearthed in the Yanghai Tombs in Xinjiang China [2]. It was likely utilized for ritual or medical purposes based on the shamanistic culture of the deceased. In fact, researchers have used genetic resequencing of 110 different cannabis stains worldwide to discover that cannabis was first domesticated in East Asia during the early Neolithic period [1]. All hemp and drug-type cannabis has diverged from this ancestral gene pool. Feral cannabis plants and hemp landrace strains can still be found in China today. However, drug-type cannabis is practically non-existent in China due to strict anti-drug policies.

Chinese Landrace Cannabis

Ancestral (“Basal”) hemp varieties have been traced to China’s northern border near Mongolia with evidence of domesticated hemp being found in the Northeast region that borders North Korea [1]. Feral drug-type cannabis that is common to Northern India has also been linked to Southern China regions like modern Sichuan and Yunan provinces. Surprisingly, basal hemp varieties from China have also been found in the Midwestern region of the United States. This basal hemp ancestor gave rise to all other varieties of cannabis through natural selection and selective breeding during domestication.

Da Ma: Hemp Use in China

One of the most well-known strains of Chinese landrace cannabis is called “da ma,” which translates to “big hemp.” Da ma has been used for medicinal purposes in China for centuries, and is believed to have anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and anti-anxiety properties. In addition to folk medicine, hemp was also used for food and textiles.

Hemp textiles (rope and cloth) were common among the general public and were also used as swaddling cloths and funerary shrouds [3]. It was the most common textile in China until cotton was introduced during the Northern Song Dynasty (960 to 1127 AD). Hemp fiber was also used to make paper. Examples of this have been dated as far back as 206 BC.

As a food crop, hemp seed was popular throughout the Spring and Autumn Period (770 to 476 BC), the Warring States Period (476 to 221 BC), the Qin Dynasty (221 to 207 BC), and the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) [3]. It was a staple of the Chinese diet along with barley, rice, wheat, and soybeans.

There are six different terms used to describe specific hemp types in Chinese culture [1]:

  • Huo Ma (fire hemp)
  • Huo Ma Ren (fire hemp seed)
  • Xian Ma (line hemp)
  • Huang Ma (yellow hemp)
  • Ma Zi (hemp seed)
  • Ma Fen (female hemp inflorescence)

Psychoactive and Medicinal Cannabis in China

Evidence of the medicinal use of hemp dates as far back as 2000 BC in the text Materia Medica Sutra or Pen Ts’ao [3]. This text notes that “ma fen” (cannabis seed) taken in excess can produce hallucinations. Ma fen was considered to be toxic, while “ma zi” was considered to be non-toxic. Ma fen was not commonly used in prescriptions, and the term was likely referring to the resinous bract around the cannabis seed since seeds themselves do not contain a psychoactive amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). However, there are occasional references to its use as an anesthetic.

There is little mention of the use of cannabis for drug purposes in China [4]. However, a Taoist priest in 5th century AD wrote a text called “Ming-I Pieh” that notes “necromancers” used cannabis in combination with ginseng to “set forward time in order to reveal future events.” This hallucinogenic use of cannabis appears to be linked to the shamanistic practices of indigenous people of central Asia. These practices were secretive and intended for religious leaders, not the general public, so they were not well recorded in historical documents. Shamanistic practices also declined heavily by the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) and disappeared entirely by the time Westerners came into contact (over 1000 years later).

Hemp Agriculture in Ancient China

Thanks to China’s rich literary history, there are several historical documents that reveal how hemp was cultivated and used in ancient China [3].

  • 1600 BC to 1501 BC

The oldest Chinese agricultural treatise is the text Xia Xiao Zheng. This document revealed that early Neolithic farmers in China cultivated hemp, millet, wheat, beans, and rice along the Wei and Yellow Rivers.

  • 1100 BC to 600 BC

The Book of Odes or Shih Ching (Western Zhou Dynasty) describes the use of hemp for fiber and the use of hemp seed for food in the region of China that is now Beijing.

  • 1100 BC to 256 BC

Historical records from the Zhou Dynasty record methods of hemp cultivation and fertilization. This is the earliest mention of using potash fertilizer in agriculture.

  • 476 BC to 221 BC

The Book of Songs and The Annals (from the Warring States period) record hemp as one of the six crops planted in ancient China.

  • 221 BC to 24 AD

A book called The Er Ya, the earliest Chinese dictionary, was written about 2,200 years ago during the Qin or Western Han Dynasties. It explains that male hemp is called “xi ma,” and female hemp is called “ju ma.” The text notes that female hemp grows straight and tall with thick and strong fibers and edible seeds, while male hemp fiber is thin and soft which is ideal for spinning cloth.

Hemp cultivation methods are also described in the agricultural books Si Min Yue Ling (Eastern Han Dynasty 25 to 220 AD), Ji Sheng’s Book (Western Han Dynasty 206 BC to 24 AD), and Qi Min Yao Shu (Northern Wei Dynasty 386 to 534 AD) [3]. Along with recording the use of potash fertilizer, these records also detail sowing times, seed collection techniques, and field controls. They even detail how male plants are best used for fiber, and how removing male plants will prevent female plants from producing seed.

It is quite amazing that these ancient people could have such advanced cultivation techniques and even grasp that cannabis is a dioecious (two-gendered) plant [3]. Europeans did not discover and record this until 1500 years later. Chinese records also recommend using adzuki beans as a green manure before planting hemp, along with the use of cover crops and rotational cropping. These agricultural techniques are still used in modern farming.

Final Thoughts on Chinese Landrace Cannabis

With such a rich history of hemp use, many are surprised that modern China has a strict anti-cannabis stance. While hemp is still widely used, it is not likely that marijuana will gain acceptance for medical or recreational purposes. This cultural phenomenon arose due to the Opium Wars. During these wars, opium from British-occupied India was pumped into China in a struggle over trading rights for Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain. Opium was initially valued for its medical uses, but the excessive supply created a massive opioid epidemic that ravaged China. These wars forever altered Chinese relations with the West and laid the foundation for strict anti-drug policies. In modern China, even the black market for cannabis is virtually non-existent.

References

  1. Hong, S., & Clarke, R. C. (1996). Taxonomic studies of Cannabis in China. Journal of the International Hemp Association, 3(2), 55-60.

https://www.druglibrary.net/olsen/HEMP/IHA/iha03207.html

  1. Jiang, H. E., Li, X., Zhao, Y. X., Ferguson, D. K., Hueber, F., Bera, S., … & Li, C. S. (2006). A new insight into Cannabis sativa (Cannabaceae) utilization from 2500-year-old Yanghai Tombs, Xinjiang, China. Journal of ethnopharmacology, 108(3), 414-422.

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0378874106002935

  1. Lu, X., & Clarke, R. C. (1995). The cultivation and use of hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) in ancient China. Journal of the International Hemp Association, 2(1), 26-30.

https://www.druglibrary.org/olsen/hemp/iha/iha02111.html

  1. Touw, M. (1981). The religious and medicinal uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet. Journal of psychoactive drugs, 13(1), 23-34.

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/02791072.1981.10471447

Sabine Downer
Author: Sabine Downer