Before the Song Dynasty, there were no quilts. How did ancient people survive the freezing winters with temperatures below tens of degrees Celsius?

Ancient Chinese Bedding and Heating

Firstly, let’s talk about quilts:

In ancient times, quilts were valuable items that could be pawned for money. Before the advent of cotton, ancient wealthy people also had air-conditioned quilts. According to the “Du Yang Miscellaneous Compilation” by Tang Dynasty’s Su E, there was a quilt called “Divine Brocade Quilt” from the country of Da Zhen. It was woven from ice silkworm silk, measuring two zhang square and one cun thick. The surface featured dragon and phoenix patterns, seemingly beyond human craftsmanship. When covered in summer months, it brought cool and refreshing comfort. The silk used for these quilts is now known as real silk, a high-quality silk for quilting, anciently referred to as silk quilts.

Besides silk quilts, the wealthy could also afford down quilts. Wang Anshi in his writings about Yongzhou mentioned that rich people in Yongzhou used goose down for winter quilts. The feathers from waterfowl provided excellent warmth and were lightweight. However, whether silk or down, only a minority in ancient times could afford such luxury.

Those who couldn’t afford real silk often used wadding made from reeds, willow catkins, or thatch. Gao Lian of the Ming Dynasty wrote in “Zunsheng Bajian” that in late autumn, people would collect reed flowers to stuff into cloth quilts. Such materials naturally resulted in inferior quality, hence the phrase “gold and jade on the outside, rotten wadding on the inside.”

Cloth quilts were not as comfortable or warm as silk ones, especially as they aged, their insulating properties diminished. Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu mentioned in his song “The Thatched Hut Torn Apart by the Autumn Wind” how a cloth quilt, after many years, felt as cold as iron and was distressing for children to sleep under. In ancient times, acquiring a quilt was not easy for the impoverished, hence Du Fu’s account of using a quilt for many years.

Aside from quilts, ancient people had numerous heating facilities:

For example, braziers.

Sitting around a brazier was a common winter scene in ancient times, serving as a ubiquitous heating tool. Those better off used exquisite braziers, while the less fortunate used simple clay ones. This economical and practical tool brought warmth to countless families in ancient times.

There were also “soup babies,” small utensils extolled by many great poets. Huang Tingjian humorously praised the warm foot bottle: “A thousand coins for a foot warmer, sleeping until morning every night.” Qu You of the Ming Dynasty wrote in “Soup Baby Poem”: “Under a cloth quilt and paper canopy on a windy, snowy night, one truly appreciates the warmth from a different place.”

In the cold northern regions, ancient dwellings saw the emergence of heated brick beds known as “kangs.” These were made by laying stones or bricks on the ground, covered with thick wooden planks or stones to form a platform. Kangs insulated against the cold ground while retaining heat. This evolved into firewalls, also known as warm rooms, consisting of a stove, firewall, and chimney. The stove served both cooking and heating purposes, warming the walls and thereby the room.

Besides physical objects for warmth, ancient people also used direct human body warmth.

An account from “Kaiyuan Tianbao Yishi” records:

“The prince of Qi was indifferent to the cold of winter and did not draw near the fire. Instead, he placed his hands within the embrace of a beautiful woman to warm them, doing so frequently.”

In addition to gathering for warmth, Tang Dynasty people invented another method of warming themselves with the company of courtesans:

“During the windy and snowy times of winter, palace courtesans were ordered to closely surround the sitting area to ward off the chill.”

Of course, these were luxuries of the rich. For the impoverished masses, winter was brutally harsh. Many suffered from chilblains, enduring the painful cold. Every winter, a considerable number of people froze to death, giving rise to the phrase “wine and meat rot behind the doors of the rich while frozen bones litter the road.”

Han Dynasty Cold Protection

Other dynasties are less known to me, but let’s briefly talk about the Han Dynasty.

The materials for cold protection can be referenced from the situation of the Han Dynasty border soldiers.

Clothing for Cold Protection: Fur, Wadded Clothes, Double-layered Clothes, and Face Clothes

During the Han Dynasty, soldiers' clothing came from two sources: personal and official. The former was known as private clothing, and the latter was typically recorded as “official + clothing name” or “county official + clothing name” during distribution. When soldiers assembled in their respective commanderies and states, they would first receive a portion of clothing (these and any extra private clothes carried by the soldiers were transported to the border by the officials). From bamboo slips, it’s evident that the clothing distributed by the commanderies and states included some cold-protective items, as follows:

In the year of Yin’an, Yibianli Yuan: Official fur coat one, chapter clothes one
Border soldier from Chenliu commandery, Pingqiu: Sheepskin fur coat one…
Border soldier from Zhao, Yiyang, Shenjue third year: Zao cloth thick robe one…

Among these, fur coats and thick robes are for cold protection, with more details below. However, the distribution seems to depend on the fiscal capability of the commandery or state, without a unified standard, so further historical documentation is needed to confirm whether every commandery or state distributed winter clothing.

Once the soldiers arrived at their posts, they would receive another set of clothing, including summer and winter clothes, as well as wadding for padding the winter clothes for warmth.

The number of clothes a soldier could receive can be referenced from the clothing list of a soldier from Shiguo, Dingtao, Jiyin commandery.

County official silk □ robe one □□ three jin County official shoes two liang
County official silk fur coat one, four jin four liang County official socks two liang
County official silk cloth two liang one County official □□ two liang
County official silk cloth trousers one liang seven jin County official leather shoes two liang not over, official coat one not over

Among these, cold-protective clothes include one fur coat. The robe doesn’t seem to be the thick robe for winter as it only weighs three jin. As per the regulations in the “Two-Year Law,” generally, a winter cloth robe for a large male servant should use three jin of wadding.

For all internal servants, county officials, and large male servants in winter, they receive seven zhang of cloth for the outer and inner parts of the robe and four jin of wadding, for pants two zhang and two jin of wadding; large women and small men receive five zhang six chi for the robe and three jin of wadding, for pants one zhang eight chi and two jin of wadding; young boys and girls receive two zhang eight chi for the robe and one and a half jin of wadding; young girls receive two zhang for the robe and one jin of wadding.

Additionally, there were double-layered clothes and trousers, all considered winter clothing.

Apart from regular clothing, there was also a provision of face clothes (clothes covering the face to protect against wind and sand), as indicated in the clothing list of Zhang Xian from Rangyi and the “Wu Ku Yongshi Si Nian Bing Che Qi Ji Bu,” suggesting that face clothes were also officially supplied.

In summary, soldiers' winter clothes included fur clothes, thick robes, double-layered clothes, and trousers. Additionally, daily face clothes could also protect against cold and wind. Fur clothes, as mentioned in “Shuowen,” are made of animal skin, predominantly sheepskin in the frontier, according to Zhao Lanxiang’s statistics on clothing materials from the Juyan bamboo slips.

Double-layered clothes, trousers, and robes are all double-layered garments with padding. As for the padding in Han military clothes, Mr. Liang Qijing has conducted systematic research, identifying three types: 1. Hemp, 2. Silk cotton, and 3. Kapok. Liang suggests that, given their poverty and low status, soldiers likely primarily used hemp. However, “wadded clothes” might indicate coarse silk cotton, depending on the time period and available resources.

Finally, face clothes were made of various materials, including cloth and wood, the former for daily use and the latter possibly for military protection, useful against wind and sand.

In severe cold, besides wearing winter clothes, soldiers could layer summer clothes or their private clothes for extra warmth.

Although there was official clothing provision, some special circumstances are recorded in the bamboo slips, such as “In autumn when it’s cold, many soldiers lack private clothes,” possibly indicating a gap between the cold onset and winter clothing distribution. Additionally, slips indicating soldiers buying and selling clothes suggest that sometimes official provisions were insufficient (but sales might also indicate surplus or unnecessary clothing).

Residential Cold Protection Facilities

The living quarters of border soldiers, such as beacon tower cities, typically had heating designs like stoves and firewalls. For more details, refer to the studies by Mr. Zhao Chongliang.

Don’t be like ancient people, this stuff has only been obsolete for a few decades.

Bai Juyi:

In the land of the Heavenly Dragon, hardly anyone thinks about this issue; it’s a rare occurrence. Those who figure out how to stay warm are even rarer. Burn something to endure until daybreak. Without anything to burn, you freeze to death; Without clothing and food, you freeze to death; Without shelter, you still freeze to death. When snow falls for five days straight, for the common people at the bottom, it’s an insurmountable obstacle, no different from freezing pine and cypress trees. It’s a natural disaster, not just a type of weather.

Rich people, needless to say, have silk, stoves, and can even buy a few warm beds and maids specifically for warmth.

As for the poor, there are always those who can withstand the cold, right?..

During the Song Dynasty, it was a common occurrence for people to suffer from chilblains when they were young.

Someone told Lord Wei that there are three treasures in the Northeast of China: ginseng, deer antler, and Ural grass.

Ural grass is a precious, bitter-tasting treasure that can be placed inside clothing as lining or inside shoes.

Heating Solutions and Clothing in Ancient China

Bedding, or more accurately, “kang” bedding, was used in ancient times. The “kang” was a heated brick bed, often used for cooking and heating, especially during cold weather.

To combat the cold, various heating solutions were employed, such as braziers, hand warmers, and foot warmers.

Clothing included garments made of silk and cotton. Silk was expensive, so some people used substitutes like dog and sheepskin, referred to as “zhu yaozi,” for warmth. This included dogskin pants and shorts.

In ancient times, there were no underpants as we know them today. During the summer, both men and women did not wear underpants. Women had to sit with their legs closed to avoid revealing anything, as it was considered indecent. Men, on the other hand, did not have this restriction. This modesty meant that women and men did not freely interact in ancient times.

Dog and sheepskin were affordable options for staying warm for most people. For those who couldn’t afford them, alternatives like willow fluff, reed flowers, and the fluff from the papyrus stem were used.

Tea stoves in ancient times also served a heating function, providing warmth in addition to brewing tea.

Winter clothing included padded robes made from duck feathers, goose feathers, chicken feathers, and felted materials.

For the elite and wealthy, there were even more luxurious options.

At night, servants or maids were used to warm the bedding. When working or writing, attendants and young scholars would have servants or pages to keep them warm. In some cases, even plump courtesans were employed specifically for heating rooms.

Natural Insulation with Straw and Grass in Ancient Times

The answer lies in something simple and natural—grass.

Whether in the north or south, east or west, grass was a widespread and easily obtainable material for insulation. In the frigid northeast, people had Ural grass to keep warm, while in the south, they relied on straw. Straw was an excellent insulating material, found from the Inner Mongolian grasslands all the way down to the Yellow River Basin and the Yangtze River Valley. It provided effective insulation, ensuring people didn’t freeze during the winter.

In the past, during the era when a utopian society was just a cave away, one of the most important tasks for mothers and grandmothers after the autumn rice harvest was to select the best straw and carefully dry it under the sun. They would let it soak up the sun’s warmth until it exuded a delightful grassy aroma. This dried straw was then laid on wooden plank beds, providing a soft and warm sleeping surface. Over time, the straw might become compacted or damp, reducing its insulation, but on sunny days, it could be taken out and dried again, ensuring a comfortable and warm bed at night.

Whether it was the wheat straw from the northern fields or the rice straw from the southern paddies, both had excellent insulating properties. Placing a thick layer of straw underneath and covering with a straw or wheat stalk woven blanket provided reliable warmth during the winter. In ancient times, of the three major killers – cold, hunger, and disease – cold was the least lethal. A family huddled in a thatched grass house, with thick straw bedding, could endure the harsh winter. However, the real threats were hunger and disease. Even the warmest straw bedding couldn’t save you if there was no food and illness struck.

In reality, ancient thatched grass houses had excellent insulation. Compared to a costly modern tent, the insulation provided by a simple grass shelter was often superior. These grass materials were incredibly effective insulators. For example, during winter frosts and snowfall, vegetables, saplings, or freshly poured, uncured concrete left unprotected would be damaged overnight. Yet, if you spread straw over these surfaces, they would remain intact and unharmed. Trees, when shielded at their roots by straw, could withstand freezing temperatures, and even if their branches and leaves were frostbitten, they would sprout anew come spring.

Winter Warmth in Ancient China: From Animal Fur to Straw

Before the widespread use of cotton, people in ancient China relied on animal fur and duck down feather quilts for warmth.

Those who have worn mink or sheepskin coats may remember just how warm they can be.

In the absence of cotton, ancient people often used “filling” materials known as “xu” for their quilts. These fillings included reed flowers, willow fluff, worn-out cotton, and straw. Ming Dynasty scholar Gao Lian mentioned “reed flower quilts” in his work “Zunsheng Bajian,” describing the process of collecting reed flowers in late autumn and using them to stuff quilts.

In northeastern China, people cherished three treasures: ginseng, sable fur, and Ural grass. Ural grass, known as “wula cao,” was also used as a filling material and provided considerable warmth.

Furthermore, ancient people used feathers and fur from birds like chickens, ducks, geese, and sheep as filling materials. Modern favorites like “down feather quilts” and “cashmere quilts” were not novel concepts in ancient times.

An interesting fact to note is that ancient people didn’t commonly refer to these bedding items as “被子” (bedding). Before the Qin Dynasty, they were known as “衾” (qin), “裯,” “寝衣,” and other terms. The distinction between “衾” and “被” is related to their thickness, with “衾” being thicker due to more filling material, while “被” (bedding) had little or no filling and was used as a lighter covering for short rests.

Beyond bedding, staying warm in winter depended on heating tools. The “fire basin” (huo pan), also known as the “sacred stove” (shenxian lu), has been used for over two thousand years since the Three Kingdoms period. Due to its prevalence in ancient households, many traditional customs, such as the bride stepping over the “fire basin” to ward off bad luck during weddings, are still observed today.

The most common heating tool was the “fire basin,” which contained wood or charcoal as fuel, providing significant warmth when lit. It was particularly effective in enclosed rooms.

Hand warmers and foot warmers were other inventions of ancient China. Hand warmers, often made of copper and resembling small gourds, had a double-layer structure with an inner compartment for burning charcoal and an outer shell that distributed the heat. They were carried conveniently in large-sleeved robes and had the elegant names of “袖炉” (xiu lu) or “捧炉” (peng lu).

Foot warmers had a similar purpose, designed to warm the feet during the cold winter months.

As for the well-known “kang,” it has a history of over two thousand years. While it was initially believed to be of Korean or Manchurian origin, recent archaeological discoveries suggest that it may have been invented by the Han Chinese during the Western Han Dynasty. The “kang” is a heated brick bed that provides warmth during the winter months.

Apart from these heating methods, simply wearing thick clothing and staying covered was a common practice to combat the cold. Poet Li Bai from the Tang Dynasty, famous for his lines “Five-horse, thousand-gold fur, call my child to bring fine wine. Together we’ll consume the worries of a thousand ages,” stayed warm during winter by wearing garments made from gray rat fur and fox fur, which were both thick and insulating.

Cotton became popular in China around the Song Dynasty. Prior to that, the less affluent relied on coarse fabric made from hemp or brown, while the wealthy indulged in silk or animal fur for warmth.

During the Song Dynasty, there was even a heating device similar to a modern hot water bottle called “汤婆子” (tang pozi). This metal vessel, with an opening at the top, would be filled with hot water and placed inside the bed before sleeping, ensuring a warm and cozy night’s rest, even when the winds outside were bitterly cold.


Primitive humans knew how to upgrade a campfire to a furnace, dig a smoke tunnel, and make a bed on top.

Water, shelter, fire, and food are the four basic steps for wilderness survival. Just watch “Man vs. Wild.” Even in the Song Dynasty, not to mention the Shang Dynasty, humans knew how to survive the winter like this…

Winter Survival in Ancient China

Although cotton was present in the Northern Song Dynasty, its widespread cultivation began during the Ming Dynasty.

Initially, cotton was primarily used for military purposes, such as making cotton armor.

Even in the Ming and Qing Dynasties, despite the prevalence of cotton clothing, people still suffered from the cold.

Before this period, the situation for the nobility during winter was relatively comfortable.

Various answers have been given regarding winter survival techniques, including using warm quilts, constructing insulated walls, utilizing stoves, and wearing fur.

During the Wei, Jin, Southern, and Northern Dynasties, impoverished families survived winter by wearing clothes made of paper, known as “paper fur.”

Apart from paper fur, poor families stockpiled firewood and maintained a source of fire to endure the winter.

In the Qin and Han Dynasties, wealthy households had insulated walls, pepper-scented chambers, various types of firewalls, and fireplaces. They also had access to different fur garments.

However, the less fortunate had to make do with garments made of hemp or arrowroot, layering them to keep warm. They applied a layer of mud to the exterior walls of their houses and used firewood for heating.

The aristocracy often wore forehead protectors for added warmth.

In some areas with extremely cold winters, the elderly and vulnerable would be sent to the city before winter arrived.

Survival Stories from Northeast China

Let’s talk about a recent story from our Northeast region. Many of you may have visited the Northeast, especially this winter, as there has been a noticeable increase in Southern visitors due to the fame of a certain city.

Yes, it’s Harbin. There are numerous videos online showing people from the South crying due to the cold, and these videos are more direct and convincing than saying it’s as cold as ice. Even with modern equipment, the cold in Northeast China can be challenging, even for the locals.

However, Northeasterners are known for their resilience against the cold. Even in temperatures below -20 degrees Celsius, you can spot Northeasterners walking around without hats, ranging from teenagers to the elderly. It’s a sight to behold, especially for those who’ve spent a significant time below the Great Wall, as this ability to withstand the cold diminishes.

Surviving the cold is instinctual for people living in frigid regions. In the past, a common saying used to describe extreme poverty was “so poor that they don’t even have cotton pants.” This may sound like a joke, but it’s a reality. In the decades leading up to poverty alleviation, many people in Northeast China lived in dire conditions.

A few years ago, I met an elderly man from the Northeast who shared his childhood story with me. It was truly inspiring. He grew up in a family of nine, even poorer than the poorest. He mentioned that his early poverty was instrumental in his later success. When I met him, he was on the verge of retirement, having worked as an engineer.

Their family didn’t have cotton-padded clothing; they had just one old sheepskin vest, and it was from the era when people were playing cards. There was only one pair of cotton pants for the entire family. During winter, they would all huddle together under a single cotton quilt.

The adults would chop wood, make fires, and cook while wearing clothes, but the rest of the family would spend most of their time on the heated brick bed, with eight or nine people squeezed under a single quilt, only their heads poking out. He became emotional when talking about this part of his life.

He mentioned that during those times, they tried to eat and drink as little as possible during winter because going to the toilet was unbearable. If a child wore the cotton pants of an adult and went outside to use the toilet, they would shiver for hours upon returning. In those days, rural Northeastern toilets were located outdoors, exposed to the wind. Wearing ill-fitting cotton pants in freezing conditions was uncomfortable, but not wearing them could lead to frostbite.

Younger siblings could relieve themselves inside the house, but older ones had to use chamber pots. It was a nightmarish experience for the older children. Since there was no central heating, they relied on heated brick beds and body warmth for warmth. If a younger brother or sister forgot to inform the older ones about using the chamber pot, they’d wake up to a frozen pot in the morning.

Did this count as having quilts? Definitely.

In such circumstances, the greatest challenge in ancient times was not keeping warm but securing food. As long as there was food, survival methods could be devised.

Staying warm involved making fires and using animal skins, or even adopting communal living, as mentioned in the story above.

In a way, it’s an academic question, but in reality, the people living in barren lands in ancient times likely faced even greater challenges than those in more fertile regions like Jiangnan, where tax burdens were heavy.

By the way, archaeological discoveries have found evidence of early human settlements in the Northeast, which means that it was even colder back then.

Ancient Commoner: I heard that once you become the emperor, you can enjoy peace and prosperity every day.

Modern Commoner: TikTok is great, the wealthy ladies living in Xintiandi, Shanghai, dance for us.