What is an Iron Rice Bowl?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The term “iron rice bowl” is a Chinese idiom used to refer to employment in an industry that offers very good job security, along with a good rate of pay, benefits, and sometimes extra perks as well. This idiom is widely used in China and Taiwan to refer to employment with the government or military, and the concept has spread to some other nations with large Chinese communities. Many Chinese covet such jobs, leading some to use the term “golden rice bowl,” stressing the increasing rarity of such positions.

An illustration of China with the Chinese flag superimposed on it.
An illustration of China with the Chinese flag superimposed on it.

A traditional rice bowl is made of porcelain, and when it is dropped, it breaks. An iron rice bowl can be dropped multiple times without fear of breakage, much like how employees in certain positions can make numerous mistakes without being fired. Civil servants and other government employees, along with members of the military, are essentially employed for life, barring truly exceptional circumstances.

The military is known as an "iron rice bowl" in China.
The military is known as an "iron rice bowl" in China.

Shifts in China's economy have changed the nature of jobs that were traditionally viewed as secure, leading to instability and uncertainty for employees. Some Chinese have held strikes to protest, demanding better job security. Others feel that such jobs are not beneficial because they do not promote excellence and innovation, as employees historically had nothing to lose by performing poorly.

Getting an iron rice bowl position is often a matter of working connections and using help from family friends, former classmates, and relatives to get in on the lower levels of an industry with the goal of being promoted to a higher-ranking position with better pay. This can make it challenging for Chinese without connections to get into positions with the government or to receive promotions when they do land government jobs. Critics have pointed this out as another argument against the idea of being allowed to hold jobs for life.

Foreign investment in China has also threatened these traditional jobs for life, as many foreign companies prefer to hire and fire on the basis of merit, feeling that they are well within their rights to get rid of employees who are not performing. This mindset has started to trickle over into Chinese society, especially among young Chinese, undermining the traditional iron rice bowl. These positions are unlikely to disappear entirely, however, since they are backed by long-standing tradition and people already in such jobs who wish to keep them.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


I think of most government jobs in the United States to be jobs such as the iron rice bowl jobs because they always come with benefits and seemingly good security.

I also think there is something good about offering such job security and therefore loyalty.

In having loyalty and people in a position for a long period of time can lead to people truly knowing the ins and outs of their job.

I realize it can also lead to plateauing and performance declining, but to use another Asian idea that I love for every yin there is a yang.


I have never heard of this phrase before! But it makes sense that I haven't considering I have not traveled to China or Taiwan where this saying is more apt to be said.

I wonder what are some specific jobs that are considered iron rice bowl jobs in areas, I know when I read what iron rice bowl meant it made me think of a recent television show.

The show talked about how teachers in our country receive tenure after a year so it makes it incredibly difficult to fire them barring a large mistake. So it seems like teachers have the a decent rate of pay and benefits but I cannot say what extra perks they might receive other than the intrinsic value of teaching the youth with the knowledge they are changing someone's life.

What are some other American "iron rice bowl" jobs?

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