Má (Chinese word)

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Ma (Chinese: ; pinyin: ) is the Chinese word for cannabis.[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 has been used to describe the hemp plant since before the invention of writing five-thousand years ago. Ma is likely to be derived from the masculine energy associated with cannabis in traditional Chinese medicine. Evidence of one of the earliest human cultivation of hemp/cannabis was found off the coast of mainland China, on the island of Taiwan. Chinese trading travelers who moved west towards India and Africa acquired seeds of the ma plant and also brought the plant's name with them.

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][6]

Use of the word ma in other languages[edit]

The term ma is commonly used to describe hemp in Asia. The word taima (大麻) is used for cannabis in Japan. In the West, the word was used by scholars and journalists when discussing cannabis regulations and law publicly (due to prohibition).

Root of Mexican Spanish word marijuana[edit]

The 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”. An exact origin of the word marijuana is uncertain. Possible explanations include other terms that can be traced to the Chinese word ma.[7][8][9]


The word ma is often paired with the Chinese word for "big" or "great" to form the compound word dàmá (大麻) which is sometimes used to describe hemp, as there is less associated with the word ma by itself, as it lacks descriptiveness[10][11]

Historical Chinese medical texts (c. 200 CE) through contemporary twentieth century Chinese medical literature discuss individual terms for ma, including máfén (麻蕡), máhuā (麻花), and mábó (麻勃), referring to specific parts of the male and female flowers of a cannabis plant.


  1. ^ a b Jann Gumbiner Ph.D. (May 10, 2011), "History of Cannabis in Ancient China", Psychology Today
  2. ^ Abel 1980.
  3. ^ Bretschneider 1895, p. 378.
  4. ^ "character 1". Kangxi Dictionary. 1716. p. 1515.
  5. ^ Hanson, Venturelli & Fleckenstein 2014, p. 408.
  6. ^ Shurtleff, Huang & Aoyagi 2014, p. 45.
  7. ^ Alan Piper, "The Mysterious Origins of the Word 'Marijuana'", Sino-Platonic Papers, 153 (July 2005)
  8. ^ Thompson, Matt (July 22, 2013). "The Mysterious History Of 'Marijuana'". NPR.
  9. ^ Sherrard, Melissa (May 31, 2017). "Where Did The Word 'Marijuana' Come From?". Civilized.
  10. ^ Touw, Mia (1981). "The Religious and Medicinal Uses of Cannabis in China, India and Tibet" (PDF). Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. 13 (1): 23–34. doi:10.1080/02791072.1981.10471447. PMID 7024492.
  11. ^ Qian, Zhang (February 8, 2014). "Healing with hemp". Shanghai Daily.