The World's First War Crop

Hemp plant sprout emerging from dirt plot at sunrise


Updated on August 30th, 2023


Hemp and humans have been inseparable for centuries, and throughout, China has been a seminal location for a myriad of major developments with the plant. Followers of the CBD Beverage Blog might remember recent posts exploring the invention of paper (thanks, hemp!) and the British Royal Navy's obsession with the fibre for national security. Today we'll skirt the topics of CBD sparkling water and phytocannabinoid-rich broad spectrum hemp extract to investigate a little more of the rich, storied history of hemp in Ancient China.

Building a Nation

Hemp was one of the very first agricultural crops - its value recognized by early man since before the Stone Age. Many of humanity's oldest written works are found in China and celebrate the plant.

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).

Hemp was so highly regarded that it's cultivation was a carefully studied science. Every conceivable factor of it's production was considered and recorded in a multitude of ancient documents.

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 For Military Superiority

We spoke in a previous article about the interesting role hemp played in fortifying the former British Empire, it's unrivaled strength and resistance to rotting making it a valuable tool for ship building and maintenance. The British, however, were not the first to employ hemp’s unusual strength for military technology.

Hemp was well known as a food, fibre and medicine for ages, but it was the Chinese who would also discover it's unusual strength. Traditionally, bowstrings were made of bamboo, an easy fibre to attain, but ultimately lacking in durability and resilience. The advancement of hemp for bowstring created a military superiority that would soon allow China to dominate its political opponents for centuries to come. Stronger bowstrings provided archers with the ability to propel their arrows farther than their opponents’ armies. Unable to effectively retaliate with shorter proximity bows, armies with weaker bowstrings were helpless to the hail of Chinese arrows flung from unimaginable distances.

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, found it's place in nurturing human development; from a food crop, to the cutting edge of military technology.

From the Mouths of Babes

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 the very first word we have for the hemp plant. In Eastern philosophy, the youngest and oldest people are considered to be closest to god - that principal season of experience in reincarnation sometimes called “the long, dark tea time of the soul”. “Ma” is also Sanskrit for “infinity” and the syllable is renowned world over as the first word to be uttered by the recently born.

It is my informed opinion that naming hemp “ma” is a bit of a cosmic joke: that even babies (perhaps especially babies) would be asking for the sacrament, still offered today for the worship of Shiva and a host of other deities.

Regardless of mythology and interpretation, hemp played an undeniably significant role in human development. Consider how primitive man must have regarded the crop: it was a lush food source, it's seeds boasting a nutrition that supported surviving famine; it was the most durable fibre, allowing man to shed hunting animal skins for warmth; and it's leaves and flowers could cure diseases that would easily kill early humans, from infections and inflammation both internally and topically to other mysterious maladies like problems with ghosts.

The medical and spiritual properties of the plant were a topic of great interest in olden days and were recorded in consequence.

A Snake Invents Medical Marijuana

Chinese history is full of bizarre stories, and the first occurrence of medical hemp is no exception. The Chinese legend begins in a hemp field. A young Liu Chi-nu was harvesting hemp stalks when he came across a large snake. Fearing the creature, Lui shot it with an arrow. Upon returning to the field the next day, Lui Chi-nu encountered the sound of a mortar and pestle grinding, which he followed to the source. There he found some younger boys preparing a hemp mixture for their master, the snake Lui had shot the day before. The boys told Chi-nu they would not retaliate for the harm done to their master because the snake had insisted that Chi-nu would be a great emperor some day. Chi-nu chased the boys off for being foolish. The fictional emperor would later find such success with the medicine that upon reaching celebrity, he popularized hemps’ usefulness throughout the land.

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