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.
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.
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.