Cannabis Seeds Found in a Chinese Tomb Show Evidence of Use in Ancient Times
The accidental discovery of the tomb of a Tang dynasty soldier, Guo Xing, hinted at cannabis as an important food crop in ancient China. The Tang dynasty, also known as the Tang empire, ruled from 618 to 907 CE with an interregnum between 690 and 705 CE. According to a new study, cannabis seemed to be a staple of the Chinese people’s diet during the ruling of this empire. What else can researchers tell us about the role of cannabis in ancient China based on the discovery of this tomb?
Cannabis Seeds Found Inside the Tomb Unearthed in Taiyuan
While the origin of cannabis has already been documented to be in Northwest China, evidence of people’s use of cannabis back then is “scant,” as the South China Morning Post put it. The news outlet explains that ancient Chinese use of cannabis is well known, especially their unique way of consuming the seeds in a kind of porridge. The recent discovery of the Tang dynasty soldier’s tomb confirmed that the Chinese civilization used cannabis for much more than food. Additionally, they used it for mental stimulus, clothing, medicine, and as a source of nutrition.
The tomb of soldier Guo Xing was accidentally discovered when construction was underway at a playground of a primary school in the city of Taiyuan in 2019. The construction workers on site unearthed a tomb, which had not been disturbed for 1,320 years. The South China Morning Post was happy to report that the tomb was still in excellent condition with the wall paintings and artifacts being “almost perfectly preserved in the unusually dry chamber.”
As researchers began to examine the tomb, a jar of staple food was found, which contained remnants of cannabis. Some of these remnants included seeds that still had their original color. This was odd considering their tendency to become dull and brittle over time. In fact, not only did these seeds maintain their color, but they were also nearly twice the size of normal cannabis seeds available today.
Researchers suggest that the color and bigger size are indicative of seeds that are “not the same as a typical cannabis plant today.” The researchers believe that the seed belongs to the cannabis variation known as sativa, which originally came from central Asia but had lower concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in comparison to what’s available now.
The Significance of Cannabis in Ancient China: Guo Xing’s Tomb
According to Jin Guiyun, a professor of history and culture at Shandong University, “the cannabis was stored in a pot on the coffin bed amid other staple grains such as millet. Obviously, the descendants of Guo Xing buried cannabis as an important food crop.” Jin and her colleagues explain that in modern day China you would be arrested for possession or dealings in cannabis, but that those living during the Tang empire ruling could have thought of cannabis as “more important than rice.”
The soldier, Guo Xing, died at the age of 90. The researchers believe that the staple grains on his tomb were reflective of the “personal diet of the veteran soldier.” To understand the significance of this, it is important to note that the area where the soldier lived and was buried, Taiyuan, was warmer and wetter than today. Rice was cultivated in the region at that time, but there was no rice in his tomb. The researchers stated that, “the cannabis was buried as food for the tomb owner’s death and health in the afterlife.”
Jin and colleagues reported that the cannabis seeds were found in the tomb without having had their husks removed. The husks don’t taste good but have higher levels of THC. The researchers go on to state that “cannabis seeds with husks are not only related to the high lignin content of the husk and its hard texture, which can reduce the chance of mold and prolong the storage time, it may also stimulate the nerves and cause hallucinations due to the consumption of husk for religious and medical purposes.”
In Ancient China Cannabis May Have Been A Staple Food Crop
Not only was the tomb hinting at cannabis as a staple food in China, but ancient Chinese texts often referred to cannabis as one of the “wu gu,” or “five staple food crops.” A book written by herbalist Li Shizhen around 500 years ago, explains that eating too many unhusked cannabis seeds could “make a person run about like mad.”
The South China Morning Post explains that there have been many other archeologist discoveries of cannabis remnants in tombs all over China, some dating back as far as 6,600 years ago, but that this is the first time that it appears to have been a staple food. China reportedly banned cannabis in the 1950s and felt enormous pressure as most of the world began to legalize and decriminalize the substance.
Hu Jiang, professor of criminal law at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law, explains that the legalization of recreational cannabis in other countries “greatly increases the opportunities for our citizens to come into contact with and use marijuana products out of curiosity.”
Modern China and Cannabis
Today, children in Chinese schools learn that cannabis was once mass produced in order to make textiles for clothing, but it is rarely mentioned for its use as food or alternative medicine. However, there are other sources that educate citizens on those other uses of the cannabis plant.
While the rest of the world is beginning to legalize and decriminalize cannabis, China appeared to be maintaining “its strict crackdown policies,” at least up until 2020 when they removed cannabis from their drug control list. Chinese farmers are now allowed to grow “safe” cannabis, which includes strains with low THC and high CBD content, most of which will be used to make hemp fiber.
Finding the tomb of the Tang dynasty soldier, Guo Xing, allowed us to peer into the history of cannabis and discover the secrets of its historical use. Cannabis has always had a symbiotic relationship with food, and further research will help us understand how this has presented itself throughout history.
Cannabis in China – Laws, Use, and History
Cannabis is viewed negatively in China, and it’s illegal to use or sell it. Despite this fact, the country’s hemp industry is booming; with Chinese companies owning over half of the world’s patents for cannabis-related products. Some experts have suggested that this marks a change in attitude for China and a relaxing of the laws in the future.
- CBD Products
- Recreational cannabis
- Medicinal cannabis
Cannabis laws in China
Can you possess and use cannabis in China?
It is illegal to possess or use cannabis in China; and the substance has been largely demonised by the government. This is a relatively new attitude, as prior to the 1980s, most policemen turned a blind eye to cannabis consumption.
Nowadays, the penalties for being caught with cannabis are severe. Offenders run the risk of receiving the death penalty for being in possession of just five kilograms or more. Additionally, strict sentences are imposed; anything from five years imprisonment to a life sentence. In some cases, however, cannabis users may only be detained for 10 to 15 days, and fined a maximum of 1,000 yuan.
The China National Narcotics Control Commission even launched a digital campaign, targeting adolescents. This was part of a national effort to reduce cases of cannabis use among younger people. According to the Chinese government, there were fewer new drug users in 2018 than the previous three years. They reported a decrease of 63% compared with 2015, 56% (2016), and 43% (2017). It’s hard to verify these numbers, as they were not produced by an independent organization.
The Chinese government has also focused its attention on students studying abroad. One such example happened in Canada, where recreational cannabis use was made legal in 2018. Chinese diplomats issued a letter to Chinese citizens living there, urging them to avoid using cannabis.
An excerpt from the letter reads: “In order to protect your own physical and mental health, please avoid contact or using marijuana.”
Can you sell cannabis in China?
The sale or distribution of cannabis is also illegal. If you’re caught selling cannabis (particularly in the stricter areas of China, where the law is more tightly enforced) you can expect a prison sentence and possibly a death sentence, depending on the amount of cannabis in your possession.
Some claim that parts of China are more relaxed than others. One Chinese citizen commented that “Shanghai is not a politically strict city…/… lots of Xinjiang people sell marijuana.” They added: “Some Xinjiangren sell weed outside the clubs and the police just walk by without caring.”
Can you grow cannabis in China?
It is illegal to grow cannabis in your home in China, and you may be prosecuted if you’re caught doing so. Despite this fact, China is the largest hemp producer in the world. It’s believed that it produces over 50% of the globe’s supply.
Is CBD legal in China?
China has a booming cannabidiol (CBD) industry. CBD is a substance extracted from cannabis, but it doesn’t contain high enough levels of THC to product a ‘high’. However, although China produces CBD products, these are exported to other countries. It is not legal to use, purchase or sell CBD in the country.
Can cannabis seeds be sent to China?
Although some stores do sell cannabis seeds in China, the law does not permit their sale. Sending them into the country via the post is also forbidden.
Medicinal cannabis in China
Cannabis’s medical value has been recognised in the country’s culture for millennia. There are numerous references to the plant in Chinese literature, especially regarding the seeds, which have been continuously used in traditional Chinese medicine for at least 1800 years.
Now, in the 21 st century, China is one of the world’s most significant medical cannabis producers. According to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, it owns 309 of the 606 patents relating to cannabis. In economic terms, this puts China in a strong position to cash in on the ‘green rush’ – with more countries choosing to make medicinal cannabis available on prescription.
Although China is a major player in the medical cannabis market, it does not currently have a medical programme in place. Nor does the law permit the use of cannabis for any medical purposes, even with a prescription.
Glenn Davies, group CEO of Singapore-based cannabis company CannAcubed, believes that it’s only a matter of time before medicinal cannabis is legalised in China. “Instead of shipping it all to the US, Canada and Europe so everybody else benefits,” he states, “it makes more sense for them to keep it here.”
However, other industry experts disagree; stating that the negativity surrounding cannabis, not to mention lack of education about its health benefits, are too much of a hurdle to overcome at present.
Industrial hemp in China
China has a huge industrial hemp industry. It’s the world’s largest producer by a significant margin, and exports hemp (and hemp products) across the globe. Demand from North America and Europe is particularly high.
Most of the hemp plantations are currently in the Yunnan and Shandong provinces. Campaigners are attempting to increase cultivation, highlighting the advantages of bringing more employment to the rural work-force. They believe that it could take three million farmers out of poverty and double their annual incomes.
As for the Chinese government? They’re keen to cash in on the economic potential of hemp production, and have stated that further plantations will be established in the Heilongjiang, Gansu, Anhui, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang provinces.
Good to know
If you are travelling to China (or currently live there), you may be interested to know the following:
- In spite of the tough laws regarding cannabis possession and sale, it is sold widely across the country. However, black-market cannabis is often poor quality and over-priced.
- Numbers of people using cannabis and other drugs have increased swiftly in the 21 st century. Experts believe this is due to the country’s growing prosperity; not to mention young people’s exposure to western culture, where drugs-taking is not regarded as such a taboo.
Cannabis has been grown in China for centuries. In fact, some of the earliest archaeological evidence of hemp usage was found in China, from some rope imprints on a piece of broken pottery. Hemp cloth was also discovered in Chinese burial chambers, dating as far back as 1122 BC.
The ancient Chinese people used it for clothing and rope, and for warfare. As it was strong and durable, it was ideal for making strings for bows, and meant the arrows could fly further. The Chinese also used it for making paper – and were the first people in the world to come up with this invention.
In addition to serving many practical purposes, cannabis was also valued as a medicine. Referred to as ‘ma’, it was used to treat a variety of conditions, from menstrual pain and gout, to constipation and malaria. It was even used as an anaesthetic to reduce pain during surgery.
Cannabis has been continually used in China since the ancient times. Even when the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, the benefits of cannabis were still being researched. However, increasingly negative perceptions meant that many of the plantations were destroyed throughout the 20 th century, particularly in the 1990s.
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The balance of Ma
The Chinese believe that cannabis (or ‘ma’) is a unique drug, in that it is feminine and masculine. This is sometimes referred to as yin and yang. The yin represented weakness and passivity, the yang, the strong and active. When the two are in balance, this results in a healthy body and mind. However, when they are out of balance, traditional medicine practitioners believe that illness is likely to occur.
Cannabis cultivation in China
Cannabis is grown widely in China (despite the laws) and can often be found growing in the wild. Plants growing in the northern latitudes (where it’s colder) are usually less potent and unpleasant to smoke. Those that grow in the southern areas of the country are considered ‘better quality’. Usually, these crops are grown for personal consumption only.
Dali City is regarded as the epicentre of cannabis cultivation in China. It’s situated in the Yunnan province, which is famous for its wild cannabis. This can be seen growing by houses and even in gardens. As a result of this, cannabis use is quite prevalent in Dali City.
Xinjang is another ‘cannabis hotspot’, and cannabis is reportedly widely available here. Most of the plants grown here are processed into hashish; which is unsurprising, given that 60% of the population here are Uyghur (people that originally come from central and eastern Asia). They’re predominantly Muslim and have brought their traditional hashish-making techniques from the Islamic world.
Attitudes to cannabis
The government’s attitude to cannabis is clear – it is regarded as a damaging substance and should not be consumed under any circumstances.
However, younger people seem to adopt a different attitude. In some of the cities, cannabis-smoking is relatively common, especially among students and young adults. Rural communities still value the plant for its medicinal properties.
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Will it be legalised in the future?
Some experts think it’s only a matter of time before China legalises cannabis for medical use. As the world’s dominant force in the medical cannabis market, it seems odd that they don’t already have a domestic industry already.
The Chinese government’s negative attitude to personal consumption means that it’s unlikely to be legalised for recreational use any time soon. It’s harder to predict what the future holds for medicinal cannabis. The government may make it legal based on cannabis’s integral role in traditional medicine, or may choose maintain their current tough stance.
While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this article, it is not intended to provide legal advice, as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.
China Cashes In on the Cannabis Boom
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Cannabis growing in Yunnan Province in China in 2004. Yunnan is now licensing companies to cultivate the plant to produce cannabidiol. Credit. Leisa Tyler/LightRocket, via Getty Images
- May 4, 2019
SHANCHONG, China — China has made your iPhone, your Nikes and, chances are, the lights on your Christmas tree. Now, it wants to grow your cannabis.
Two of China’s 34 regions are quietly leading a boom in cultivating cannabis to produce cannabidiol, or CBD, the nonintoxicating compound that has become a consumer health and beauty craze in the United States and beyond.
They are doing so even though cannabidiol has not been authorized for consumption in China, a country with some of the strictest drug-enforcement policies in the world.
“It has huge potential,” said Tan Xin, the chairman of Hanma Investment Group, which in 2017 became the first company to receive permission to extract cannabidiol here in southern China. The chemical is marketed abroad — in oils, sprays and balms as treatment for insomnia, acne and even diseases like diabetes and multiple sclerosis. (The science, so far, is not conclusive.)
The movement to legalize the mind-altering kind of cannabis has virtually no chance of emerging in China. But the easing of the plant’s stigma in North America has generated global demand for medicinal products — especially for cannabidiol — that companies in China are rushing to fill.
Hanma’s subsidiary in Shanchong, a village in a remote valley west of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, cultivates more than 1,600 acres of hemp, the variety of cannabis that is also used in rope, paper and fabrics. From the crop, it extracts cannabidiol in oil and crystal form at a gleaming factory it opened two years ago, in a restricted zone next to a weapons manufacturer.
“It is very good for people’s health,” Tian Wei, general manager of the subsidiary, Hempsoul, said during an interview at the factory, which was punctuated by test gunfire from the manufacturer next door.
“China may have become aware of this aspect a little bit late, but there will definitely be opportunities in the future,” Mr. Tian said.
China has, in fact, cultivated cannabis for thousands of years — for textiles, for hemp seeds and oil and even, according to some, for traditional medicine.
The Divine Farmer’s Classic of Materia Medica, a text from the first or second century, attributed curative powers to cannabis, its seeds and its leaves for a variety of ailments.
The company Hempsoul extracts cannabidiol from the hemp it grows on more than 1,600 acres in Yunnan Province. “It is very good for people’s health,” said the general manager, Tian Wei. Credit. Steven Lee Myers/The New York Times
“Prolonged consumption frees the spirit light and lightens the body,” it said, according to a translation cited in an article in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology.
The People’s Republic of China, after its founding in 1949, took a hard line on illegal drugs, and cultivating and using marijuana are strictly forbidden to this day, with traffickers facing the death penalty in extreme cases.
After signing the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances in 1985, China went even further. It banned all cultivation of hemp — which had long been grown in Yunnan, a mountainous province that borders Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam and is among China’s poorest. Farmers produced hemp to make rope and textiles and China had banned it even though it has only trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the mind-altering compound found in marijuana.
At a news conference in Beijing last month, Liu Yuejin, deputy director of the National Narcotics Control Commission, said the momentum toward legalization in other countries meant the Chinese authorities would ”more strictly strengthen the supervision of industrial cannabis.”
The Hempsoul factory has dozens of closed-circuit cameras that stream videos directly to the provincial public security bureau.
China relented on industrial hemp only in 2010, allowing Yunnan to resume production. Hemp then was used principally for textiles, including the uniforms of the People’s Liberation Army, but soon the products expanded.
The growing industry has brought much-needed investment to Yunnan. The mild, springlike climate is exemplary for growing cannabis, and a farmer can earn the equivalent of $300 an acre for it, more than for flax or rapeseed, Mr. Tian of Hempsoul said.
Hempsoul is one of four companies in Yunnan that have received licenses to process hemp for cannabidiol, putting more than 36,000 acres under cultivation. Now others are joining the rush.
In February, the province granted a license to three subsidiaries of Conba Group, a pharmaceutical company based in Zhejiang Province. A company based in the city of Qingdao, Huaren Pharmaceutical, said recently it was applying for permission to grow hemp in greenhouses, which already line the landscape around Kunming.
Other regions have taken notice, too. In 2017, Heilongjiang, a province along China’s northeastern border with Russia, joined Yunnan in allowing cannabis cultivation. Jilin, the province next door, said this year that it would also move to do so.
The flurry of announcements sent the companies’ stocks soaring on Chinese exchanges, prompting regulators to step in to restrict trading.
China has cultivated cannabis for thousands of years. Yang Ming, a leading expert on hemp, said the plant’s seeds were traditionally formed into a ball and used to treat constipation. Credit. Steven Lee Myers/The New York Times
While the health benefits of cannabidiol remain uncertain, the United States Food and Drug Administration last year approved the first use of it as a drug to treat two rare and severe forms of epilepsy. Other potential uses are being studied.
China permits the sale of hemp seeds and hemp oil and the use of CBD in cosmetics, but it has not yet approved cannabidiol for use in food and medicines. So, for now, the bulk of Hempsoul’s product — roughly two tons a year — is bound for markets overseas. Mr. Tian said he believed it was only a matter of time before China, too, approved the compound for ingestion.
Hanma’s ambitions are global. It has acquired an extraction plant in Las Vegas, which is expected to begin production soon, and it plans one in Canada. Mr. Tan, the chairman, said he hoped that China, with the world’s largest market, would follow the lead of the United States, which he called “the best-educated” market for the benefits of cannabis.
“It’s a new application, but one that carries forward our tradition,” he said, citing the ancient texts describing its medicinal purposes.
Yang Ming, a scientist with the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Science who is one of China’s leading experts on hemp, said the plant’s seeds were traditionally formed into a ball and used to treat constipation, but the psychotropic qualities of cannabis were not broadly known by farmers or other residents.
As China gradually opened up following the Cultural Revolution, however, foreign visitors to Yunnan in the late 1980s and early 1990s discovered an abundance of cannabis growing wild. That, in part, turned the region into a destination for backpackers and adventurers seeking a certain kind of experience.
“They would go to the villagers’ cannabis fields, pick the buds and bring them back to the hotel to dry and smoke,” Dr. Yang said. “Some of them became deranged and ran around naked after smoking it.”
That’s when the authorities intervened. Dr. Yang, originally from Yunnan, was a recent graduate of the agricultural university in Beijing at the time. He was assigned to study cannabis, and he has been doing so ever since. His avatar on social media is a cannabis leaf.
The academy has been breeding its own varieties of hemp — each of which requires approval from the police — to ensure the plant contains less than 0.3 percent of THC, the international standard for cannabis. There are nine varieties now, and Dr. Yang’s team continues to research more.
One of the varieties, Yunnan Hemp No. 7, allows the extraction of greater amounts of cannabidiol. While the compound’s use in commercial products remains in its infancy, Dr. Yang has watched the stigma of its association with marijuana begin to evaporate.
“Other countries,” he said, with pride of parenthood, “really like our CBD.”