Cannabis in Chinese Medicine
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a medical system, as you might have guessed, that originated in ancient China thousands of years ago. The system has progressed and evolved over the many years of its existence and implementation – and utilizes such techniques as acupuncture, dietary restrictions and therapy, tai chi, qigong, and “feng” or “wind” treatments in order to sustain a healthy and optimized body and mind.
While in many respects, Traditional Chinese Medicine is rooted in an ancient past, it still finds a high level of popularity not just in China, but throughout the world. Millions of people from all countries are opting for the treatments of TCM, which differ in a notably more “holistic” way by taking a philosophical approach to health. These methods view the mind and body as a part of the surrounding universe and aim to achieve a harmonic balance between opposing forces, more commonly referred to as yin and yang.
Herbs have also traditionally played a large role in Chinese medicine – and there are a seemingly unlimited variety of them, all with different applications and effects (such as the Reishi mushroom, Red Ginseng, and Ginger). But right up there with the best of the herbs sits Cannabis, which in addition to its numerous health applications, has a rich history in manufacturing and agriculture.
New studies and research are revealing just how deeply cannabis is rooted in traditional Chinese medicine. In this article, we’ll explore the everything from the origins to cannabis hemp production to the historical use of (CBD containing) cannabis in Chinese medicine.
Part 1: Cannabis (Hemp) in Chinese Agriculture
Cannabis has a long a varied history with humans since the dawg of the agricultural revolution over 12,000 years ago. In fact, the celebrated physicist, Carl Sagan, once proposed the possibility that marijuana may have actually been world’s first agricultural crop, leading to the development of civilization itself. New findings have given evidence that hemp may have been first cultivated nearly 9000 years ago in a civilization in current day Taiwan. The fibrous and hardy plant was first used to make everything from rope, to parchment, to textiles.
While cannabis and hemp come from the same plant (Cannabis Sativa) the cultivation methods and strain (subspecies) of Cannabis determine whether or not your plant is colloquial cannabis (the type of cannabis that provides psychoactive effects and contains THC) or industrial hemp, the kinds used textiles and parchment.
It is generally agreed that the Chinese were one of the first civilizations to master agricultural hemp, as referenced from early Chinese records. From 5000 BC and 200 AD, the Qin and Han dynasties developed advanced techniques of hemp sowing, cultivation, and processing. According to Cannabis in Chinese Medicine [Frontiers in Pharmacology], “The prominence of hemp in ancient Chinese culture is referenced in numerous records during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), including philosophical works by Confucius, Xinxi, Zhuangzi, and Mozi, as well as the Classic of Poetry.”
The sixth century agricultural text, known as Essential Techniques for the Welfare of the People (by Qi Min Yao Shu) highlights various techniques for the cultivation of hemp in great detail. It even goes into numerous, step by step fertilization techniques – and exists as the first recorded document of its type in Chinese history. There are even specific Chinese characters that present early knowledge of the dioecious (flora gender specificities) of cannabis. Interestly enough, this text also demonstrates that the Chinese knew that removing the male organs of the plant upon flowering would result in a lack of seeds, but it seems it was not necessarily deliberate.
Simply put, the Chinese knew what they were doing when it came to hemp cultivation. The crop may have been, in its own way, as important as rice.
Part 2: An Overview of CBD usage in Chinese Medicine
It wouldn’t be until roughly 4000-5000 years ago that the Chinese first started using cannabis for medical related issues. Cannabis includes the compound CBD (cannabinol) which for thousands of years has been used to treat chronic pain, anxiety, inflammation, depression and many other conditions. Some of the earliest documented medical usage was in 2700 BC when the great Emperor Shen Neng of China used hemp seeds to treat chronic pain and gastrointestinal issues.
Some of the most comprehensive mentions of medicinal cannabis in Chinese medical literature is in the The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, first published around 150 AD. The book was written with the support of the legendary emperor, agriculturalist, and herbalist, Shennong, and is still referenced today. The book has whole sections dedicated to the benefits of medicinal cannabis, citing that it can aid optical health, lethargy, mood, and a “quickening” of the blood. It was also seen as something that could benefit the health of the heart, liver, lungs, kidneys, and spleen. With such a variety of applications, the Chinese saw cannabis as something of a panacea, with wildly far reaching benefits.
In the book “Illustrated Analysis of Medicinal Substances”, author Yang Huating adds additional discussion based on the Divine Farmer’s claims about cannabis. CBD acts as both an anti-inflammatory and can slightly thin the blood of a patient, which interprets the notion of “blood quickening.” On this basis, he recommended it for wide range of other ailments, such as menstrual issues, itching, convulsions, dry cough, and headaches.
The book also jovially mentions that smoking colloquial (THC containing) cannabis can cause one to “see ghosts and run about frantically.” Sounds like someone smoked a bit too much. It should be noted that CBD, found in industrial hemp, has no psychoactive effects, unlike THC (the chemical that gets you “stoned” in marijuana). This means that taking the compound, which has no health risks or addictive potential, will not cause a change in your perception of reality.
Part 3: Cannabis as an Anesthetic in Chinese Medicine
Surgery was particularly terrible in the olden times. Pain was a part of life, and an agonizing certainty for patients. Early surgical practices implemented numerous ways to dull the pain, ranging from ether, to nitrous oxide, to opiates – and most commonly used was alcohol.
Famed Chinese physician, Hua Tuo who lived under the reign of the Eastern Han Dynasty around 150 AD, was known for and most famous for his abilities in acupuncture, moxibustion, herbal medicine, and medical Daoyin exercises. He was also a pioneer in new surgical techniques and early anesthesia. He created a formula called Ma Fei San, which he used as a pain killer for those undergoing surgery. While the specific formula has been lost, other writings of his note that it contained cannabis seed extract and datura (a hallucinogenic drug).
Specific cases of abdominal operations were recorded in his journal and official biography. Once, a patient was suffering from severe abdominal pain for over ten days and had delapdation of the hair (likely appendicitis) came to seek his aid. Hua Tuo would diagnose him with having deterioration of the abdomen and had him drink the CBD containing Ma Fei Dan drink to dull the pain during the operation. Upon passing out, the doctor then cut into his abdomen and removed the damaged organ, sutured and plastered him back up, and gave him an herbal tea. The patient would see a full recovery in roughly 100 days, over which he was directed to ingest a tea containing a hemp oil extract.
Another journal entry would recall the story of general Guan Yu, who suffered a severe injury sustained from a poisoned arrow during a battle. Hua Tuo advised the general to drink the Ma Fei San and undergo the surgery. The general, noted as being rather stubborn and proud, denied the anesthetic, opting to play a board game to distract his mind from the pain. Hua Tuo cleaned his flesh down to the bone, but the general was unable to remain calm during the painful surgery (turns out that board games are not effective as anesthetics). He would slyly apply the serum to the general’s wound, sedating him just enough to finish the operation successfully.
While the Ma Fei San recipe has been lost, it goes to show CBD’s effectiveness at treating pain and inducing a calm state of mind. Hua Tuo has been dead for thousands of years, but his works are still referenced and taught as an important influencer of early Chinese medicine.
Part 4: Cannabis (CBD) for Pain Relief in Chinese Medicine
During the 6th century AD, a document aptly titled “Additional Records of Famous Physicians” was added to the Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica. Additional medical applications of cannabis were added by the author Tao Hongjing, stating that the plant can be used to “break accumulations, relieve impediment, and disperse pus.” In Chinese medicine, impediment syndrome refers to a set of conditions characterized by joint and muscle stiffness and chronic pain. Basically, what we’d refer to as arthritis today. It has become well known and well documented in modern medicine that the CBD in cannabis has anti-inflammatory properties.
Inflammation happens when the body floods an area with white blood cells. It does this as a defensive mechanism to increase blood flow to a damaged or infected area. In some inflammatory diseases, however, the body’s defense system (the immune system) triggers a response when there are no foreign substances to fight off. With these diseases, called autoimmune disorders, the body’s (normally protective) immune system causes damage to its own tissues. The body responds as if normal tissues are infected or as if there is some sort of infectious pathogen (like a virus, or bacterial growth) in the area. In the case of arthritis, the body is literally attacking its own joints on a false alarm. The result can extremely painful and debilitating.
Of course, at the time the Chinese, nor anyone of any era of medicine predating the 1800’s (when red and white blood cells were first discovered), had any conception of the root cause of chronic pain. Nor did they know that the anti inflammatory properties of cannabis were attributed to the CBD which it contained. However, they knew that cannabis worked; that it, simply put, made patients healthier and feel better.
Another record of cannabis in the treatment of pain is referenced in Physician Su Song’s, “Materia Medica”, printed in 1070 AD. The text gives a strong recommendation to sufferers of chronic pain to ingest cannabis seed wine, stating that “by 10 servings the suffering will be alleviated; its effect cannot be surpassed.” There are countless CDB related products on the market. More than a single person could hope to try in a lifetime. But I have yet to see wine – and I hope that I don’t have to wait too long for this idea to come into fruition as a CBD product of modern usage.
Part 5: Cannabis for Mental Illness in Chinese Medicine
The various psychoactive effects of marijuana were recognized fairy early into the first century and ever since there have been increasing mentions of its use as a treatment for mental illness. Celebrated Chinese physician, Sun Simiao, in his 17th century book, “The Compendium of Materia Medica”, he lists cannabis as a reliable treatment for depression, or “wind-withdrawal” and the “100 diseases” as he refers to it.
The meaning of “wind” (or feng) in Chinese medicine is a term that borders on the line of holistic and real physiological and psychological medicine. The knowledge of feng is extremely widespread throughout many of the Asian countries and popular to a level that even the needle point of an acupuncture needle, in English, translates to “grasping the wind.” As I refer to it throughout this article, it should be noted that “wind / feng” relates to the following ailments:
- diseases involving symptoms appearing in different parts of the body at different times: early stage rheumatism involving differing joints or skin rashes that appear in different places;
- diseases involving loss of movement: stroke, paralysis, tetany, and coma;
- various pain, numbness, and spastic syndromes, sometimes referred to as bi syndromes, including headache, toothache, limb numbness, tendon spasms, arthritis, deep bone pain;
- diseases that are acute: common cold, influenza, sinus infection, skin eruption, sore throat, cough, eye disorders; and
- diseases that affect the surface of the body (skin or flesh, rather than viscera): chronic eczema, leprosy, scrofula, hair loss.
Later on, during the Qing Dynasty, the 16th century text “Reaching the Course of Materia Medica, author Ben Jing Feng Yuan states that the cannabis flower treats 120 different types of malign wind, as well as itching. He also indicates that it will treat lack of free flow during menstrual cycles. In general, “malign wind” is referred to as being depression, mania, or other abnormal mental conditions, all which these early physicians helped alleviate through the use of CBD containing cannabis.
Lastly, written in the book “Pharmacology” in 1905 by Sheng Yao Xue, the physician documents his use of cannabis to treat agitation, hysteria, spasmodic cough, and nerve pain. Following this book 30 years later, writer Yao Wi Ti Kao highlights in his book, “Illustrated Analysis of Medicine”, adds many new arguments for cannabis in relation to wind withdrawal, which overlaps with epilepsy and seizures, in addition to many other mental illnesses and erratic behaviors. This is quite interesting, as modern day medicine has shown CBD to be one of the most effective natural treatments for epilepsy. There is a great deal of overlap through all of these texts with the modern uses of of CBD for psychological issues, such as mental health, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Part 6: Cannabis is Modern Day Chinese Culture
China is nearly 6000 years old and has one of the most rich and varied histories of all of the great civilizations of the world. While marijuana was made illegal in 1985, hemp, one of the most important crops to ever be utilized in Chinese culture, continues to thrive in a billion dollar industry.
In 2017, Chinese hemp sales totalled $1.1 billion dollars, making us a third of the global market, with sales expected to grow to 1.5 billion by 2020. 83% of the sales were made up of textile and fabric production. It is forecasted that hemp CBD products will exceed $230 million usd by 2020. Chinese CBD products are in high demand by neighboring countries, Japan and South Korea. Both countries have a high relative spending for wellness and cosmetics and may further catapult China’s burgeoning CBD and hemp market.
China has a well documented history with opium and some other highly hallucinogenic based plants like datura. By the late 19th century, the country had gone from receiving 200 chests of opium annually, to being of the largest domestic producers in the world. Simply put, the Chinese loved their opium and addiction ravaged their population until the 1950s. However, recent research reveals there is “little to no evidence that cannabis was ever abused or prohibited in China prior to the first documented seizure of imported cannabis products in 1936 in Xinjiang.” Opium, on the other hand, was well known to be highly addictive. It is pretty clear that, at least in most regions, cannabis was simply part of everyday life for the Chinese people, in and outside of medicinal practices, and had been that way for thousands upon thousands of years.
Despite recreational cannabis being illegal, usage amongst the Chinese youth is on the rise, despite the harsh penalties for possessing it. Regardless, China remains one of the leaders in hemp and CBD production – and there is no doubt that they led the world, for thousands of years, in the exploration of the plant’s medicinal benefits. With an incredible foundation of knowledge already written it would be irresponsible to no consider their work as a reference point for future work and research into CBD use.
It is no secret to the world that cannabinoids such as CBD and THC have attracted increased attention regarding their value in the practice of modern medicine – and their popularity extends well beyond the meager grasp of western pharmacology and culture. Yet despite given China’s rich past in cannabis as both a cash crop, a medicine, and a recreational herb, it is wild to behold just how little research has been done to truly explore this history. There is a wealth, literally thousands upon thousands of years, of untranslated documentation that point towards the holistic benefits of cannabis, but it has not been until just recently that the academic community has begun to shine a light on the subject. The use of cannabis as both a fiber and a food crop in ancient China, combined with its extensive use in medicine, makes these ancient historical records particularly valuable.
CBD is, without a doubt, one of the most wide reaching drugs available in the world. How many other substances have been reported as having such a variety of applications? Water, perhaps, might have it beat, if not simply because our cells need it to live. Throughout the world, the medical benefits of CBD are becoming more and more known everyday – and I suspect that we are hardly a horizon’s distance from a future where CBD is as readily available as the most popular of OTC drugs.