Wearing it, Smoking it, or Selling it? The Hazy History of Cannabis in Ancient Korea
Cannabis. Even the word is enough to bring people closer or drive them further away. Although the topic of legalization is controversial in the USA, not all regions have felt this way. In fact, the Korean peninsula has a long history connected to this plant. Worn, smoked, or sold, cannabis products helped ancient Korea have some high times.
Cannabis is a topic that is quite divisive in the West, although in the USA, legalization of the drug for medicinal and even recreational use is becoming more widely supported, and in some states, it is already legal to use marijuana. Other products related to cannabis, for example hemp for fabrics, or hemp seeds as a food, are mostly accepted as they are farmed from strains designed not to contain enough of the compound THC to cause the high associated with marijuana use.
Cannabis. (Public Domain)
Cannabis in Korea
In the Korean peninsula, which now comprises the two countries known as North Korea and South Korea, hemp has long been an important commodity, and one that has had a part to play in some of the major events in the region.
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It is also generally believed that recreational cannabis use is either legal, or illegal but not enforced, in North Korea. Though due to the secretive nature of the regime there it is difficult to know what the actual position is, as one can only go on information from what visitors to North Korea have seen. Nonetheless, it is commonly thought marijuana is widely used in North Korea as an alternative to tobacco, and as a remedy for pain and stress.
Drawing of Cannabis sativa from Vienna Dioscurides, 512 AD. (Public Domain)
The Korean Hemp Industry
Historical trading records lead one to believe that the cannabis plant has been grown in the Korean peninsula and traded with China and Japan for centuries, and archaeological findings show that these plants have been around in this part of Asia since at least 5000 BC.
Archaeological research also suggests that hemp was mainly used as a fabric, alongside silk. It was also used to create paper, which was highly prized for its quality and used in important Buddhist writings.
Left: Hemp fiber from the Cannabis sativa plant (CC BY SA 3.0). Right: Chinese hemp fiber paper, used for wrapping not writing, excavated from the Han Tomb of Wu Di (140-87 BC) at Xi'An (CC BY SA 3.0)
Magu – The Korean Cannabis Deity
Another interesting thing about how important cannabis was in historical Korea is that there was a deity who was believed to protect the harvest. A goddess, called Magu, was used to represent the importance of the relationship between the plant and Korean agriculture. Her name is derived from the Chinese words for 'cannabis' and 'girl' – 'ma' and 'gu'.
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Portrait of Magu - the Immortal Hemp Maiden. (Public Domain)
The Modern Korean Hemp Industry
The Korean peninsula is one of the biggest global hemp growers, and while it is difficult to know exactly what goes on in North Korea since the rise of the Kim dynasty in the early 20th century, it is known that the region bordering China is full of hemp farms. Moreover, one of the only partnerships between North Korean and South Korean businesses is between a trading company in the North and a hemp textile company in the South, forming the Pyongyang Andong Textile Company.
As you can see, hemp has been very important to the Korean peninsula both in modern times and throughout history. It is interesting that North Korea, thought to have one of the strictest regimes in the world, may be relaxed about marijuana use, too.
Wrapping cloth (pojagi or bojagi) from Korea, 20th century, hemp, plain weave, hand-stitching, gekki (triple-stitch seam) construction, Honolulu Museum of Art. (Public Domain)
Shearlaw, M. and North Korea Experts (2014). ‘Mythbusters: uncovering the truth about North Korea.’ Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/13/mythbusters-uncovering-the-truth-about-north-korea-cannabis-metro
Szirom, T. (2015) ‘Goddess Mago, Ma_Ku, Magu. Goddess of China, Korea and Japan.’ Available at: https://www.gaiasgarden.com.au/index.php/aboutus/articles-by-gaias-garden/132-goddess-mago
TwoTenTwice (2017). ‘Historical Uses of Marijuana.’ Available at: http://twotentwice.com/guides/marijuana-history/