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File:Taiwan anti-marijuana poster.jpg
The Chinese word 麻 (ma) on an anti-marijuana poster in Taiwan

Ma or (Mandarin pronunciation: [mǎ]), a Chinese word for cannabis, is represented by the Han character .[1][2][3][4] The term ma, used to describe medical marijuana by 2700 BCE, is the oldest recorded name for the hemp plant.[5]

History and migration of the word ma[edit]

The word ma has been used to describe the cannabis plant since before the invention of writing five-thousand years ago. Ma might share a common root with the Proto-Semitic word mrr, meaning "bitter." Evidence of the earliest human cultivation of ma was found off the coast of mainland China, on the island of Taiwan. Chinese travelers who moved west carrying seeds of the ma plant also brought the plant's name with them, the word then becoming integrated into the neighboring languages.[2][6][7]

Ma in poetry and song[edit]

Ancient Chinese prose and poems, including poetry in the Shi jing (Book of Odes), mention the word ma many times. An early song refers to young women weaving ma into clothing.[1][8]

Use of the word ma in other languages[edit]

The term ma is commonly used to describe cannabis throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. The same character is used in kanji (大麻) to represent taima (cannabis) in Japan.[9] In the West, the word is used by scholars and journalists when discussing Chinese cannabis law.[10]

Root of slang term marijuana[edit]

The slang term marihuana or marijuana is thought to have originated, at the end of the 19th Century, with Mexican immigrants to the United States who began using the word after hearing Chinese-American immigrants calling marijuana ma ren hua, an expression which translated literally means "hemp-seed-flower".[11] An exact origin of the word marijuana is uncertain. Possible explanations include other terms that can be traced to the Chinese word ma.[7][12][13]


The word ma is often paired with the Chinese word for "big" or "great" to form the compound word dama or 大麻 (dàmá). Dama is sometimes used to describe industrial hemp, as there is a negative connotation meaning "numbness" associated with the word ma by itself.[14][15]

Historical Chinese medical texts (c. 200 CE) through contemporary twentieth century Chinese medical literature discuss individual terms for ma, including mafen (麻蕡), mahua (麻花), and mabo (麻勃), referring to specific parts of the male and female flowers of a cannabis plant with differing cannabinoid ratios.[16]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Jann Gumbiner Ph.D. (May 10, 2011), "History of Cannabis in Ancient China", Psychology Today
  2. 2.0 2.1 Abel 1980.
  3. Bretschneider 1895, p. 378.
  4. "character 1". Kangxi Dictionary. 1716. p. 1515.
  5. Hanson, Venturelli & Fleckenstein 2014, p. 408.
  6. Barber, E.J.W. (1991). "The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean". Prehistoric Textiles. Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-00224-8. Search this book on Logo.png
  7. 7.0 7.1 Alan Piper, "The Mysterious Origins of the Word 'Marijuana'", Sino-Platonic Papers, 153 (July 2005)
  8. Shurtleff, Huang & Aoyagi 2014, p. 45.
  9. Clarke & Merlin 2013, p. 154.
  11. Thompson, Matt (July 22, 2013). "The Mysterious History Of 'Marijuana'". NPR.
  12. Sherrard, Melissa (May 31, 2017). "Where Did The Word 'Marijuana' Come From?". Civilized.
  13. Touw, Mia (1981). "The Religious and Medicinal Uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet" (PDF). Journal of Psychoactive Drugs.
  14. Qian, Zhang (February 8, 2014). "Healing with hemp". Shanghai Daily.
  15. Brand, E. Joseph; Zhao, Zhongzhen (March 10, 2017). "Cannabis in Chinese Medicine: Are Some Traditional Indications Referenced in Ancient Literature Related to Cannabinoids?". Frontiers in Pharmacology.


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