Before the Song Dynasty, there weren't even cotton quilts. How did ancient people survive the harsh winters with temperatures below freezing?

Ancient Chinese Winter Comforts

Discussing quilts first:

In ancient times, quilts were valuable items and could be pawned for money when needed.

Before cotton was available, ancient wealthy people also had air-conditioned quilts. According to “Du Yang Za Bian” by Tang Su E, there was a type called “Shen Jin Quilt,” a tribute from the Dazhen Kingdom: The Shen Jin Quilt, woven from ice silkworm silk, was two Zhang (a unit of length) square and one inch thick. It featured dragon and phoenix patterns, seemingly beyond the reach of human craftsmanship. When covered in the summer months, it provided a cool and penetrating comfort. The silk used in Shen Jin Quilts, now known as real silk, was a high-grade material for quilts. The ancient people referred to these silk quilts as “silk quilts.”

Besides velvet quilts, wealthy people could also use down quilts. Wang Anshi wrote in his article about Yongzhou that the rich in Yongzhou covered themselves with goose down quilts in winter. The feathers of waterfowl have excellent insulation and are lightweight, making them ideal for stuffing quilts. Of course, whether velvet or down quilts, only a minority in ancient times could afford them.

Those who couldn’t afford silk often used flock as quilt fillings, with materials like reed flowers, willow catkins, and thatch. Gao Lian of the Ming Dynasty mentioned in “Zun Sheng Ba Jian” that in late autumn, people would collect reed flowers to fill their cloth quilts. Naturally, these materials were of lower quality, leading to the phrase “golden exterior, rotten filling.”

Cloth quilts were not as comfortable or warm as silk quilts, especially as they aged and their insulating effect diminished. Du Fu, a Tang Dynasty poet, lamented in his song “A Thatched Hut Torn Apart by Autumn Wind”: “Years-old cloth quilts are cold as iron, my dear children sleep restlessly on their torn beds.” Indeed, for the poor in ancient times, acquiring a quilt was not easy, which explains Du Fu’s use of his quilt for many years.

Apart from quilts, ancient people had various heating facilities:

Such as the brazier.

Sitting around the stove was a common winter scene in ancient times, and the brazier was the most common cold-weather tool. Those better off used exquisite braziers, while the less fortunate used simple clay pots. This economical and practical tool brought warmth to countless families in ancient times.

There was also the “soup pot,” a small utensil praised by many great poets. Huang Tingjian humorously praised the foot-warming bottle: “A thousand coins for a foot-warmer, sleeping till dawn every night.” Qu You of the Ming Dynasty also wrote in his “Soup Pot Poem”: “On windy, snowy nights, under a cloth quilt and paper canopy, one truly believes warmth has its own realm.”

In the freezing northern regions, ancient people’s residences included the still prevalent “kang bed,” where stones or bricks were laid on the ground, covered with thick wooden planks or brick to form a kang platform. The kang bed insulated against the cold ground and retained heat. This evolved into the “fire wall,” also known as a “warm regulating room,” consisting of a stove, fire wall, and chimney. The stove could be used for cooking while heating the wall, serving both cooking and warming functions.

Apart from physical means of warming, ancient people also had a more direct method - body heat.

Recorded in “Kaiyuan Tianbao Yi Shi”:

The Prince of Qi, fascinated by women, would warm his cold hands not by the fire but by tucking them into the bosom of a beautiful courtesan, a practice he called “warming hands,” and did so regularly.

Beyond communal warming, the Tang Dynasty invented a method of warming with courtesans:

During winter months, especially during windy, snowy, and bitterly cold times, palace courtesans were ordered to huddle closely around their seats to ward off the chill.

However, these were luxuries of the rich. For the impoverished masses, winter was cruel. Many suffered from chapped hands and feet, enduring the harsh cold. Deaths due to freezing were not uncommon, epitomizing the saying “The stench of wine and meat in rich households contrasts with the bones of the frozen dead on the streets.”

Han Dynasty Cold Protection Methods

Focusing on the Han Dynasty, let’s explore the materials and methods used for cold protection, with reference to the situation of the garrison soldiers.

Clothing for Cold Protection: Fur, Padded Clothing, Double-layered Clothing, Face Covering Clothing

During the Han Dynasty, garrison soldiers' clothing came from two sources: personal and official. The former was called private clothing, while the latter was typically recorded in the format of “official + name of clothing” or “county official + name of clothing.” When soldiers gathered in their respective jurisdictions, they were initially provided with some clothing (these, along with any surplus personal clothing, were transported by the government to the frontier). From the bamboo slips, it’s evident that the clothing provided by the jurisdictions included items for cold protection, as shown below:

Yin’an Yibian Liyuan Year: Official fur coat one, embroidered clothing one
Garrison soldier of Chenliu County, Pingqiu: Sheepskin coat one…
Soldier of Zhao State, Yiyang, Shenjue Third Year, plain cloth double-layered robe one…

Fur coats and double-layered robes were among the winter clothing. However, it seems the provision of clothing depended on the financial strength of each jurisdiction, so there’s no uniform standard, and further historical records are needed to confirm if every jurisdiction provided winter clothing.

Upon arrival at their posts, soldiers would receive another set of clothing, including both summer and winter wear. Additionally, they were provided with padding for winter clothing for warmth.

The quantity of clothing a soldier could receive is exemplified in the clothing list from Shiguo in Dingtao County, Jiyin County:

County official silk □ robe one □□ three jin County official shoes two liang
County official silk fur garment one, four jin four liang County official socks two liang
County official silk cloth two liang one set County official □□ two liang
County official silk trousers one liang seven jin County official leather shoes two liang, not included, and official garment one set, not included

Among these, fur garment was for cold protection. The robe seems not to be a winter double-layered robe, as it only weighs three jin. According to the “Two Year Law,” a winter cloth robe for a large male laborer should have three jin of padding.

For various internal (idle) county officials and laborers, large males in winter receive cloth robes seven zhang long with four jin of padding, pants two zhang long with two jin of padding; large females and small males, winter robes five zhang six chi long with three jin of padding, pants one zhang eight chi long with two jin of padding; non-working small males and females, winter robes two zhang eight chi long with one and a half jin of padding; non-working small females, winter robes two zhang long with one jin of padding.

Other winter clothing included double-layered woven and double-layered garments.

Besides regular clothing, there were also face-covering garments (used to shield the face from wind and sand), as seen in the prescribed clothing for Zhang Xian of Rang County, which included “one face garment.” The “Wu Ku Yong Shi Si Nian Bing Che Qi Ji Bu” also mentioned the storage of face garments in the arsenal, indicating they were officially provided.

In summary, the winter clothing for soldiers included fur coats, double-layered robes, double-layered garments, and double-layered trousers. Additionally, everyday face garments also served as protection against cold and sand. Fur coats, as mentioned in “Shuo Wen,” are made of animal skin, with sheepskin coats being common on the frontiers. According to Zhao Lanxiang’s study on the materials of clothing in Juyan slips, sheepskin was the most used.

Double-layered robes, garments, and trousers (pants) were double-layered clothes with stuffing in between. Liang Qijing’s comprehensive study on Han Dynasty military clothing fillers identified three types of padding: 1. Hemp, 2. Silk cotton, and 3. Kapok. Liang believed that, due to the soldiers' poverty and low status, hemp was most likely the main padding. However, this is debatable. The type of padding probably varied with the era; during the Xin Mang period, with even food supply reduced, hemp would have been dominant, while during the Zhaoxuan period, coarse silk cotton might have been primarily used.

Lastly, the face garments varied in material, including cloth and wood. The former was likely for everyday use, while the latter might have been for military protection, useful against wind and sand.

In extreme cold, soldiers wore multiple layers, including summer clothes and their private clothing. The more layers they could wear, the better.

Even with official clothing provisions, there were still special circumstances. Bamboo slips mention “in autumn the cold sets in, many soldiers lack private clothing,” indicating that the cold arrived before the distribution of winter clothing, causing those without private clothing to suffer. Numerous slips about soldiers buying and selling clothing also suggest that official clothing alone might not have been sufficient (though many slips show soldiers selling clothing, implying they had sufficient or surplus clothing).

Initial Cold Protection Facilities in Residences

The residences of soldiers in beacon and border cities typically had heating designs, including stoves and firewalls. For detailed information, refer to the research by Zhao Chongliang.

Don’t mention the ancients; this thing has only been obsolete for a few decades.

Bai Juyi:

In the land of the Celestial Dragon, few would ever think of this question; almost none.

Those who understand how to keep warm are equally rare.

Burn something to endure until dawn.

Without anything to burn, one freezes to death;

Without clothes and food, one freezes to death;

Without shelter, one still freezes to death.

When snow falls for five consecutive days, for the common people at the bottom, it is an insurmountable hurdle, not much different from freezing to death.

It is a natural disaster, not just a type of weather.

Rich people don’t need to worry, they have silk cotton, stoves, and can even buy extra warm beds and servants.

As for the poor, they always find a way to survive the cold, don’t they?

Without the Song Dynasty, when we were young, chilblains were a common phenomenon.

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

Ula grass is a bitter treasure, which can be stuffed inside clothes as lining or inside shoes.

Winter Warmth Solutions in Ancient China

Beddings, or more accurately, “kang” beddings, were an essential part of ancient Chinese households. The “kang” was a raised platform used for various purposes, including cooking and heating, making it a central feature of homes. It served as both a cooking and heating source, ensuring warmth during the cold seasons.

To combat the chill further, people relied on various heating methods, including using braziers, hand warmers, and foot warmers. These devices provided additional heat and comfort.

For clothing, silk was a luxury, and not everyone could afford it. To stay warm, some people used animal skins like dog and sheepskin, commonly referred to as “zhu yaohzi.” These materials were used to make jackets, pants, and undergarments.

Interestingly, in ancient times, there were no undergarments in the modern sense. During the summer, both men and women went without undergarments. Women, in particular, had to sit with their legs closed to avoid any indecent exposure. This was due to the absence of undergarments, which could lead to immodest situations. Men did not have such concerns and could sit more comfortably, but it was still considered impolite for women to be seen by men.

In addition to animal skins, people used natural materials like willow fluff, reed flowers, and pampas grass fluff to insulate themselves from the cold. These materials were often stuffed into clothing for added warmth.

Furthermore, ancient Chinese tea stoves also served as a source of heat in households during the winter months.

For those with means, luxurious winter clothing options included robes made from duck feathers, goose feathers, chicken feathers, and felt. These garments provided extra warmth and comfort during the colder seasons.

In higher social circles, additional measures were taken to stay warm, including having attendants or maids to warm the bed at night, servants to keep warm while working or studying, and even the use of plump courtesans as a source of warmth in certain situations.

Natural Insulation: Grass for Winter Comfort

The answer to staying comfortably warm lies in something simple and abundant: grass.

Regardless of the region, whether in the north or south, people found ingenious ways to combat the cold. In the chilly Northeast, they had “Ula grass” to keep them warm, while in the south, they relied on straw. Grass, in its various forms, proved to be an excellent and widely available material for insulation. From the grasslands of Inner Mongolia to the fertile plains of the Yangtze River basin, people used grass to ensure they stayed warm during the winter months.

In the past, during the heyday of a utopian society, one of the most important tasks for mothers and grandmothers after the autumn rice harvest was to select and prepare the best straw. They would carefully dry and sun-cure it, filling it with the refreshing scent of grass. This prepared straw was then spread on wooden beds, providing a soft and warm sleeping surface. Over time, the straw could become compressed or damp, reducing its insulating properties. To maintain its effectiveness, people would periodically expose the straw to sunlight, ensuring a comfortable and warm bed at night.

Whether it was the wheat straw of the north or the rice straw of the south, both proved to be excellent insulators. By layering a thick bed of straw underneath and covering oneself with straw quilts or blankets, people could face the winter season with confidence. Among the three major threats to life in ancient times—cold, hunger, and disease—the direct impact of cold was the least severe. With ample food and shelter, individuals and families could withstand the harsh winter. While a warm straw bed could provide comfort, it was ultimately the presence of food and good health that truly mattered.

Ancient thatched houses had surprisingly effective insulation properties. Even today, when camping outdoors, a well-made grass shelter can outperform expensive modern tents in terms of warmth. The insulation properties of these grass materials were remarkable. For example, during frost and snow, vegetables, young trees, or freshly poured, undried concrete left exposed to the elements would freeze and become damaged overnight. However, by laying a layer of straw, they would remain intact. Similarly, tree roots protected by straw could survive the cold, and even if the branches and leaves were frozen, they would sprout anew in the spring.

Keeping Warm in Ancient China: From Fur to Fire

Before the widespread use of cotton, people in ancient China relied on animal fur and duck down for warmth. Those who have worn mink or sheepskin coats will remember how cozy they could be.

Before the era of cotton, silk was a luxury, so ancient people often used “xu” (絮) as filling material for their bedding. This xu could be made from various materials like reed flowers, willow fluff, worn-out cotton, or straw. In the words of Ming Dynasty scholar Ming Gaolian, “Reed flower bedding” was made by collecting reed flowers in late autumn and placing them inside a cloth casing.

In the northeastern region of China, there were known as the “Three Treasures”: ginseng, mink fur, and Ula grass. Ula grass served as a form of insulation and provided warmth.

Additionally, ancient people used feathers and fur from chickens, ducks, geese, and sheep as filling materials. The modern-day favorites like “down comforters” and “cashmere blankets” were not novel ideas to our ancestors.

Interestingly, the term “被子” (bèizi), which means “blanket” or “comforter” today, was not commonly used in ancient times. People referred to blankets as “衾” (qīn), “裯,” or “寝衣” instead. The difference between “衾” and “被” was in their thickness and insulation capacity. “衾” referred to a thick blanket with more filling material, while “被” (quilt) was thinner and often used for short naps. The latter was also known as “小卧被” (xiǎo wò bèi), meaning a small nap blanket.

Beyond blankets, staying warm during the winter depended on heating methods. The traditional Chinese brazier, known as “火盆” (huǒ pén), dates back over two thousand years to the Three Kingdoms period. It involved placing wood or charcoal in a metal basin and lighting it for indoor heating. It played a significant role in winter warmth and even had cultural significance, such as the tradition of the bride stepping over the brazier to dispel bad luck during weddings.

Other inventions included hand warmers and foot warmers. Hand warmers, often made of copper and resembling small gourds, had a dual-layer structure with an inner compartment for burning charcoal and an outer shell for heat dissipation. They were convenient to carry and were sometimes kept in the wide sleeves of ancient robes, earning them the elegant names “袖炉” (xiù lú) or “捧炉” (pěng lú).

For people in northern regions, the “kang” bed has a history of over two thousand years. While its origin has been attributed to various cultures, it provided an efficient heating solution in cold climates. It involved a raised platform with a hollow space underneath, where a fire could be lit. The heat from the fire would circulate through channels, warming the sleeping area above.

Apart from these heating methods, wearing warm clothing was crucial. Legendary poet Li Bai from the Tang Dynasty preferred garments made from the fur of gray squirrels and foxes, which were thick and insulating.

Cotton became prevalent in China around the Song Dynasty, but before that, poorer households relied on coarse fabrics made from hemp or brown materials for warmth. Wealthier families wore luxurious fabrics like damask or silk, along with animal fur and hides for insulation.

During the Song Dynasty, there was an invention similar to a hot water bottle called the “汤婆子” (tāng pózi). It was a metal container with an opening at the top for pouring in hot water. People would place it in their beds before sleeping, keeping their feet warm and ensuring a comfortable night’s sleep, even in the coldest of winters.


Even ancient people knew how to upgrade a campfire into a furnace, dig a smoke tunnel, and make a bed on top.

Water, shelter, fire, and food are the four basic steps to survive in the wilderness. Just watch “Man vs. Wild,” and you’ll see that not only during the Song Dynasty, but even during the Shang Dynasty, humans knew how to survive winter like this…

Winter Survival in Ancient China

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

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

Even during the Ming and Qing Dynasties when cotton clothing became more common, people still suffered from freezing temperatures.

Before that, it’s a different story for the aristocrats during the winter months.

Under this topic, many have mentioned various methods, including quilts, double-layered walls, hot water bottles, and fur clothing.

During the Wei, Jin, Northern and Southern Dynasties, impoverished families made do with paper clothing to keep warm, known as “paper fur.”

Apart from paper fur, poor families stockpiled firewood and preserved fire starters to survive the winter.

In the Qin and Han Dynasties, wealthy households had double-layered walls, pepper-scented chambers, various types of firewalls, and fireplaces. They also possessed various fur clothing.

However, the poor had a much harder time. They wore clothes made of hemp or kudzu, layered them, and applied mud on the exterior walls of their houses for insulation, relying on wood burning for warmth.

Noble families would even wear a forehead warmer for added comfort.

In some regions with extremely harsh winters, before the onset of winter, they would send the elderly and weak into the city for safety.

The Winter Resilience of Northeastern Chinese

Let me tell you a modern-day story from our Northeast, not going too far back in history.

I’m sure many people have visited the Northeast, especially this winter, as there has been a noticeable increase in people from the South coming to the Northeast. Why? Because Harbin, a city in Northeast China, has gained popularity.

Yes, it’s Harbin. There are many videos online showing people crying from the cold, and these videos are more direct and convincing than describing water freezing instantly. The cold in the Northeast is so harsh that even modern individuals equipped with all kinds of gear can’t withstand it.

However, Northeasterners are resilient. Even in temperatures below minus twenty degrees Celsius, you can see Northeasterners walking the streets without wearing hats. People of all ages, from teenagers to the elderly. In such freezing conditions, even the act of spitting can lead to instant freezing. This resilience, the ability to endure without wearing hats in sub-zero temperatures, is truly remarkable.

Living in cold regions, resilience to cold is instinctual.

When I was young, there was a saying to describe extreme poverty: “so poor that they don’t even have a pair of cotton pants.” Don’t think of it as a joke; it’s a reality. In the decades before poverty alleviation, there were many impoverished people in Northeast China.

A few years ago, when I visited my hometown, I often heard about how people were living better lives. With big tile-roofed houses and brick-walled courtyards, they seemed prosperous. The elderly would reminisce, saying that many years ago, their family was so poor that they had only one pair of cotton pants and one cotton quilt for the entire winter. I didn’t have any recollection of these stories from my childhood.

Around the year 2000, I met an elderly Northeasterner who shared his childhood stories with me. His story was inspiring. He grew up in a family of nine, even poorer than the one mentioned earlier. He said that his childhood poverty played a significant role in his later achievements. When I knew him, he was a retired engineer.

His family didn’t have cotton-padded jackets, only an old sheepskin vest with shedding wool, which they received years ago during the era of Landlords' Mahjong. They had only one pair of cotton pants. During the winter, the entire family huddled under a single cotton quilt.

The adults chopped wood, lit fires, and cooked, so they could wear clothes while working outside. But the rest of the time, everyone was huddled on the heated brick bed, with eight or nine people crammed under a single quilt, only their heads exposed. His narration became blurry at this point.

He mentioned that during the winters back then, they tried to eat and drink as little as possible because going to the toilet was excruciating in the freezing cold. When a child wore the same cotton pants that an adult had worn outside and went to use the outdoor toilet, it would take them a couple of hours to recover from shivering. In those days, in the rural Northeast, the toilet was just a slightly more secluded outdoor spot. Wearing loosely-fitted cotton pants that let in the cold from all sides was incredibly uncomfortable, but they had no choice because not wearing them could lead to their legs freezing like icicles.

Younger siblings could relieve themselves inside the house, but older ones had to use a chamber pot. Rotating the pot among older children was also a nightmare, as it meant dealing with the frigid cold. Since there was no heating, they relied on the heated brick bed and each other’s body heat for warmth. If a younger sibling forgot to inform their older brothers and sisters before relieving themselves, they had to deal with a frozen chamber pot the next morning.

So, did they have a cotton quilt? Absolutely!

By this reckoning, in ancient times, the biggest challenge during winter wasn’t staying warm; it was food. As long as they had food, they could find a way to survive.

Staying warm was possible through making fires, utilizing animal fur, or even adopting the communal living approach mentioned earlier in the story.

This might sound like an academic question, but in reality, people living in barren lands in ancient times might have faced even greater life pressures than those in more fertile regions, despite the heavy taxation in places like Jiangnan.

Oh, and speaking of archaeology, primitive human sites have been discovered in Northeast China, a region that was even colder in ancient times.

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

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