Hemp fibre in Chinese history

Hemp fibre

Hemp, by Guizy

The earliest record of man’s use of hemp fibre comes from the island of Taiwan, located off the coast of mainland China. In this densely populated part of the world, archeologists have unearthed an ancient village site dating back over 10,000 years to the Stone Age.

Scattered among the trash and debris from this prehistoric community were some broken pieces of pottery, the sides of which had been decorated by pressing strips of cord into the wet clay before it hardened.

Also dispersed among the pottery fragments were some elongated rod-shaped tools, very similar in appearance to those later used to loosen cannabis fibers from their stems. [1]

These simple pots, with their patterns of twisted fiber embedded in their sides, suggest that men have been using the cannabis plant in many ways since the dawn of history.

The discovery that twisted strands of fiber were much stronger than individual strands was followed by developments in the arts of spinning and weaving fibers into fabric- innovations that ended man’s reliance on animal skins for clothing.

Here, too, it was hemp fiber that the Chinese chose for their first homespun garments. So important a place did hemp fiber occupy in ancient Chinese culture that the Book of Rites (II Century B.C.) ordained that out of respect for the dead, mourners should wear clothes made from hemp fabric, a custom followed down to modern times. [2]

Twisting hemp and spinning yarn

While traces of early Chinese fabrics have all but disappeared, in 1972 an ancient burial site dating back to the Chou dynasty (1122-249 BC.) was discovered. In it were fragments of cloth, some bronze containers, weapons and pieces of jade.

Inspection of the cloth showed it to be made of hemp, making this the oldest preserved specimen of hemp in existence. [3]

The ancient Chinese not only wove their clothes from hemp, they also used their sturdy fiber to manufacture shoes. In fact, hemp was so highly regarded by the Chinese that they called their Country the

“Land of mulberry and hemp”

The mulberry plant was venerated because it was the food upon which silkworms fed, and silk was one of China’s most important products. But silk was very expensive and only the very wealthy could afford silken fabric. For the vast millions of less fortunate, cheaper material had to be found; such material was typically hemp.

Ancient Chinese manuscripts are filled with passages urging the people to plant hemp so that they will have clothes. [4] A book in ancient poetry mentions the spinning of hempen threads by a young girl. [5]

The Shu King, a book which dates back to about 2350 B.C., says that in the province of Shantung the soil was “whitish and rich…with silk, hemp, lead, pine trees and strange stones […]” and that hemp was among the articles of tribute extorted from inhabitants of the valley of the Honan. [6]

During the ninth Century B.C. “Female man-barbarians”, an Amazon-like dynasty of female warriors from Indochina, offered the Chinese Emperor a “luminous sunset-clouds brocade” fashioned from hemp, as tribute. According to the court transcriber, it was shining and radiant, infecting men with its sweet smelling aroma. With this, and the intermingling of the five colours in it, it was more ravishingly beautiful than the brocades of our central states”.  [7]



The Chinese character “Ma” was the earliest name for hemp.

It is composed of two symbols depicting hemp: the straight line depicts a rack, from which hemp fibres are dangling, so that they could dry. [8,9]


Hemp fiber was also oce a factor in the wars waged by Chinese land barons. Initially, Chinese archers fashioned their bowstrings from bamboo fibers.

When hemp’s greater strength and durability were discovered, bamboo strings were replaced with those made from hemp.

Equipped with these superior bowstrings, archers could send their arrows further and with greater force. Enemy archers, whose weapons were made from inferior bamboo, were at a considerable disadvantage.

With ineffectual archers, armies were vulnerable to attack at distances from which they could not effectively return the hail of deadly missiles that rained upon them. 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. [10]

Chinese ArcheryHemp fibre for Chinese archery

In fact, every canton in ancient China grew hemp. Typically, each canton tried to be self-sufficient and grow everything it needed to support its own needs. When it couldn’t raise something itself, it grew crops or manufactured materials that it could trade for essential goods. Accordingly, crops were planted around homes not only because of the suitability of the land, but also because of their commercial value. The closer to the home, the greater a crop’s value.

Because food was essential, millet and rice were grown wherever land and water were available. Next came vegetable gardens and orchards, and beyond them the textile plants, chiefly hemp.[11]

After the hemp was harvested by the men, the women, who were the weavers, manufactured clothes from fibers for the family. After the family’s needs were satisfied, other garments were produced for sale. To support their families, weaving began in autumn and lasted all winter. [12]


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List of references

  1.  K. Chang, The Archaeology of Ancient China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968), pp. 111-12; C.T. Kung,Archeology in China (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959), 1:131.
  2. H. Li, “The Origin and Use of Cannabis in Eastern Asia: Their Linguistic Cultural Implications,” in Cannabis and Culture, ed. V. Rubin (The Hague: Mouton, 1975), p.54.
  3. H. Li, “An Archaeological and Historical Account of Cannabis in China,” Economic Botany 28 (1974); 437-8.
  4. M.D. Merlin, Man and Marijuana (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickenson University Press, 1968), p. 80.
  5. Merlin, Man and Marijuana, p. 81.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Quoted in E.H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), p. 195.
  8. http://druglibrary.org/schaffer/hemp/history/first12000/1.htm
  9. http://www.jackherer.com/thebook/chapter-one/
  10. W. Eberland, The Local Cultures of South and East China(Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1968), p. 102.
  11. M. Granet, Chinese Civilization (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1930), p. 143.
  12. Ibid., p. 145.

Gustav Heiberg Andersen, Guizy

Viola Brugnatelli

Viola Brugnatelli is a Neuroscientist specialised in Cannabinoid circuitry & GPCRs signalling. Her academy and research training let her gain extensive experience on medical cannabis and terpenes both from preclinical as well as clinical perspective. In her vision, collective human knowledge behold the power for overall improvement of life, thus, it should be accessible and shareable. Viola is Founder of the science online magazine Nature Going Smart, and works as a consultant for companies & individual patients, as a speaker at seminars and workshops and as a lecturer in a CME course on Medical Cannabis in Italy, at the University of Padua.

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