mín yǐ shí wéi tiān 民以食为天
Food Is of Primary Importance to the People.
The people consider food to be of the utmost importance. Shi (食 food) is a general term for the basic resources or material conditions essential to human life; tian (天 heaven) refers to the most important things or the basic elements which determine everything. Ancient Chinese believed that rulers not only had to understand that the ordinary people were the ruler’s “heaven” and the “foundation” of the state, they also had to understand what the ordinary people’s “heaven” was. Food is an indispensable basic material condition for the people to feed themselves, support their families, live peacefully, and fulfill stable jobs; of course it is also an indispensable basic material condition for a ruling group to mollify the people and ensure their livelihood. The bottom line for governing a country and helping its people is to guarantee the people food to eat and enough of it, and to guarantee the supply of basic resources needed for survival. This is an extremely pragmatic political concept.
Li Yiji then said, “I hear that those who understand the ways of heaven can accomplish the job of kings, while those who do not understand the ways of heaven cannot. Rulers who honor the kingly way regard the people as heaven, and the people regard food as heaven.” (The History of the Han Dynasty)
The people are the foundation of a state, food is heaven to the people, and clothing is the next most important thing. (The History of the Three Kingdoms)