Military rations of the Ming Dynasty

As Napoleon Bonaparte once said "an army marches on its stomach.", the importance of military logistics simply cannot be overstated. In a sense, military logistics can be seen as the single most important factor that decides whether a war is won or lost, even more so than military stratagem or technology.

Due the fact that Chinese fought most of their wars on their own soil or on barren steppes and deserts, foraging was either impractical (nothing to forage) or strongly discouraged/outright banned. Thanks to China's centralised governance and military organisation, it had a remarkably sophisticated logistical system for its time that could provision its armies effectively and remove the dependency on foraging (although foraging still happened from time to time). Unfortunately, even the most robust logistical system had its failings. As such, emergency rations were issued to supplement regular military rations, and generals were taught survival skills in case of severe food shortage.

Military ration, known as Qiu Bei (糗糒, lit. 'Dry food') and Ji Liang (齎糧, lit. 'Supplied food') in Classical Chinese, generally remained consistent throughout many dynasties as dietary culture change slowly. In fact, Ming Chinese inherited most of their standardised military rations from their Song ancestors.

Fresh Food
Rice and millet
Rice and millet were (and still are) the most important food sources for Chinese people. Thus unsurprisingly they were also the main food sources for the military. In fact, ancient Chinese military logistics reports rarely record military rations other than grain food. Generally, one sheng of rice or millet would be enough to sustain one troop for a single day.

Rice and millet make the perfect military rations in pre-modern times. They have extremely long shelf life, can be transported conveniently, are easy to cook (just add water and then boil it, basically), provide instant energy, and generally taste good and easily swallowable (compared to hard tack, for example).

Wheat and barley were also grown and eaten, although they were not mainstay military food.

While beef, mutton, pork, poultry and fish were all eaten in the military, fresh meat was considered a luxury due to the difficulty of preserving it. Nevertheless, most Ming troops still had semi-regular access to this valuable food in the form of pre-expedition and pre-battle feasts, celebrations, salary as well as rewards.

For long campaign, living sheep and cows (but not pigs, which are not herdable) were brought along with the army to ensure a steady supply of fresh meat.

Fresh vegetable and fruit were even more of a luxury than fresh meat and thus not normally included in the logistics.

Preserved Food
Sun (飧)
Also known as Sun Fan (飧飯), this food was prepared by repeatedly steaming and basking (dehydrating) cooked rice for ten times. This way, the rice last longer and could be recooked in a much shorter time by simply pouring hot water over it. Generally, a troop would be given two dou of Sun Fan, which could sustain him for fifty days.

Although prepared using a much more primitive method, Sun Fan is, for all intent and purpose, exactly the same thing as instant rice.

Salt in the form of lump was given to every troop. Generally a lump of salt could sustain a troop for fifty days.

Due to the difficulty of transporting large quantities of liquid in the army, liquid food additives such as vinegar were carried by other ingenuitive means. The usual method of preparing vinegar was to steep a one chi long cloth in one sheng of vinegar, then dry it. This process was repeated until all vinegar was used up. When vinegar was needed for cooking, a small piece of cloth would be cut out and cooked together with other food. Generally one strip of cloth provided enough vinegar for a troop for fifty days.

Alternatively, a wheat bread could be used in place of the cloth.

Fermented black bean bread
This food was prepared by grinding three sheng of fermented black beans to mash and mix it with five sheng of salt. Then, the dough was made into bread and dried. Due to its saltiness this bread was not consumed directly, instead the bread crumbs were added to other foods as flavouring. One such bread was enough for a troop for fifty days.

Lap Yuk/La Rou (臘肉, cured meat) and Lap Yu/La Yu (臘魚, cured fish)
Meat and fish were preserved with a special preserving method known as La Zhi (臘製), which involves brining, marinating, and sometimes smoking. As the preserving process was usually carried out in the last month of the year, known as La Yue (臘月) in Chinese calender, the food also came to be known as La Rou (meat) and La Yu (fish).

A properly processed La Rou could last for several months in the open and still be eaten if the meat had started to mold (although the moldy parts had to be removed first).

Dried, salted or smoked meat and fish
Despite the advantage (namely being more tasty) of La Rou, its preserving process was rather complicated and time-consuming. Troops with less time in hand often opt for simpler methods such as drying, salting and smoking.

Dried or pickled vegetable
Like meat, vetegable was also processed to last longer, usually by pickling. Chinese cabbage and cucumber were argubly the most common processed vegetables during Ming period.

Dried tea leaves compressed into a cake, known as Bing Cha (餅茶, lit. 'Tea bread').
As Chinese were (and still are) avid tea drinkers, tea was the most important drink after water in the military. Dried tea leaves could be compressed and moulded into tea bricks for ease of transportation.

Tea was also an important commodity in tea-horse trade. which was an important source of warhorse for the Ming military.

Alcoholic beverages
A Ming period liquor bottle. Private collection.
Like meat, alcoholic beverages were considered a luxury rather than a necessity. In fact, drinking in the army was often explicitly banned, although alcoholic beverages would still be given out during feasts or celebrations as morale booster.

The most commonly consumed alcoholic drink in the military was probably a type of low quality, village-brewed Huang Jiu (黄酒) known as Mao Chai (茅柴).

Chu Fan (芻飯)
Chu Fan was prepared by simply drying Sun Fan even further so that it could be preserved for longer period.

Mi Bing (麋餅, venison meatloaf)
Mi Bing was prepared by boiling ground venison in hot soup, then forming the cooked ground meat into a loaf shape. The loaf was then cut into bite-sized Qi Zi (see below) pieces and dried. Mi Bing was usually recooked with hot soup before eaten, but it could be eaten as it was if there was not enough time to prepare the food.

Ma Bing (麻餅, lit. 'Sesame bread')
A bread with sesame seed topping, it was also known as Jin Qian Bing (金錢餅, lit. 'Gold coin bread'), De Sheng Bing (得勝餅, lit. 'Victory bread') and Cai Guo Gong Bing (蔡國公餅, lit. 'National Duke Cai's bread').

Qi Zi (棋子, lit. 'Chess piece')
Qi Zi was an umbrella term referring to any bread specifically made to resemble Chinese chess piece for ease of consumption and transportation. Outside of military, Qi Zi was also eaten by common folk as snacks and trail rations.

Kompyang/Guang Bing (光餅)
A bagel-like bread with sesame seed topping said to be invented by Ming general Qi Ji Guang (戚繼光) and named after him. Thanks to a hole in the centre of the bread, groups of Kompyang could be strung together for ease of transportation. Usually, multiple Kompyang were strung into a ring shape and carried around the neck.

Chao Dai (麨袋, fried flour pack)
Pre-fried millet, wheat or barley flour, or a pre-fried mixture of all three, packaged into a leather or cloth bag. Chao was usually cooked into a mushy congee and mixed with salt (and other food additives or garnishment if available) before eaten, but it could be eaten raw if needed be.

A Chinese soldier during Korean War, munching on snow while holding a bowl of Chao Mian in his right hand.
Also known as Chao Mian (炒麵), this food had been a staple military ration in Chinese military for a very long time, and was consumed as late as Korean War. Chinese troops were forced to eat unheated Chao Mian mixed with snow as cooking smoke would attract U.S. air strikes, giving rise to the saying "Yi Ba Chao Mian Yi Ba Xue (一把炒麵一把雪, one handful of fried flour, chugged down with the helping of one handful of snow)".

Military-issued Emergency Rations
Qi Ji Guang's emergency ration pack
Qi Ji Guang created an emergency ration pack consisted of one sheng of fried rice, one sheng of fried rice flour, one sheng of wheat dough mixed with sesame oil, six he of steamed wheat flour repeatedly steeped and basked in Shao Jiu (燒酒), as well as four he of steamed wheat flour repeatedly steeped and basked in salt and vinegar. All these foods were packaged separately.

Qi Ji Guang's troops were forbidden to open the ration pack unless they were in the direst of circumstances. Losing the ration pack was seen as an offence comparable to losing a weapon (i.e. punishable by paddling).

Thirst suppressor
Half sheng of sesame seeds were issued to every troops as emergency thirst suppressor. In the event of severe water shortage, thirty sesame seeds could be consumed to temporary suppress the thirst. Alternatively, plum and dried cheese (when taken in moderation, eating too much cheese would worsen the thirst) could be used in place of sesame seed.

Dried cheese was also fed to horses as thirst suppressor.

Last Resort Survival Food
Eating warhorses and beasts of burden
In time of desperation, horses and other beasts of burden were slaughtered for food. Troops were instructed to kill weaker animals first in order to remain combat-capable for as long as possible. In general, one cow or horse could sustain fifty troops for a single day, while a donkey could only sustain thirty.

Eating leather
In the case of extreme food shortage, troops were instructed to cook and eat leather/hide equipment to stay alive. Leather armours, boots, belts, reins and saddles could all be eaten this way.

Eating pine bark
If the army faced extreme food shortage in mountainous area, troops were instructed to collect pine bark for food. Ten catties of pine bark were cooked together with one he of rice until it became completely tender. Generally, half sheng of pine bark could sustain a troop for a single day.

EXTRA: Other Chinese cuisines purported to be originated from Ming military rations
San He Mian (三合麵)
A local delicacy of Quanzhou, San He Mian is prepared by mixing fried wheat flour with fried dry onion, fried sesame seeds, and some sugar. It can be eaten by pouring hot water over the mixture and stir it until the mixture turn into a thick, soup-like pottage. Said to be originated from the military rations of Qi Jia Jun (戚家軍), San He Mian is essentially a more palatable version of Chao Mian.

Ke Die (蚵嗲, oyster fritter)
One of the most famous Taiwanese delicacy, Ke Die is said to be invented by Koxinga when his army faced food shortage during the campaign to retake Formosa from the Dutch.

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  1. Bravo, very well-written, I learned a lot. I rarely see ancient Chinese military cuisine being mentioned on other sites.

    1. I find it extremely hard to research for this topic due to the scarcity of organised material, so there's a lot more info to be added later.

  2. Under the "thirst suppressor" section you mention cheese being eaten. Are you referring to dairy-based cheeses like those in the West or are you talking about a different kind of Chinese-style cheese I'm not aware of? I was under the impression that dairy-based cheeses weren't really a thing in traditional Chinese cuisine.

    1. Indeed 酪 in Chinese language refes to any fermented food, not just diary product. However the cheese in the context does refer to diary-based cheese.

      Despite the prevalence of lactose intolerance in Asian, Chinese people did eat diary product.

    2. I see. IIRC, certain types of cheese (especially aged dry cheeses) and fermented dairy products like yogurt are actually pretty safe to eat for lactose intolerant people since most of the lactose is either broken down by the lactobacillus or strained off in the whey during the cheese-making process. I know traditionally Chinese cuisine tends to not have much cheese or dairy products in it, but I heard Mongol, Tibetan, and a few other ethnic groups' cuisines around China do. Was the context of the cheese-eating during a campaign against the Mongols or something like that?

    3. No context given unfortunately. The ration was inherited from Song Dynasty Wujing Zongyao, so it was pre-Mongol.

  3. Is there any side effect after eating pine bark/their own equipment?

    Like, do they get sick? (Assuming they don't have to worry about war)

    1. I am sure they won’t be the most tasty of food, but leather equipment and pine bark are both well-known desperate survival food.

      Link for example.

    2. In other word, you won’t generally catch disease or getting poisoned by eating those things.