A new kind of iron rice bowl

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In the good / bad old days of Chinese communism, people talked about having a "tiě fàn wǎn 铁饭碗" ("iron rice bowl"), which meant essentially that they had a "job for life", though the pay might have been extremely meager.  With the transformation of communism to mercantilism* (in the PRC's case, we may refer to it as "neomercantilism"), the old iron rice bowl could no longer be assured, so new (and more sophistical) types of job security were devised.  One that I just heard about for the first time a few days ago is biānzhì 编制.  For the moment I'll just say that this term can normally mean "weave; plait; braid", "work out; draw up", "organizational scheme (of a group / work unit)", and so forth.  The individual morphemes of which biānzhì 编制 is composed respectively mean "knit; weave; plait; compile; edit; arrange; organize" and "make; manufacture; restrict; system; work out; establish; overpower".

The latter part of this post will be devoted to trying to determine a suitable translation for biānzhì 编制 as it is currently being used with regard to job security.  First, however, it is necessary to explain the context in which I learned this term.

During the past month, but stretching back a year or more, there have been recurrent protests by Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) veterans complaining about their reduction or loss of retirement benefits.

"Large army veteran protests in China pose challenge for Xi", Gerry Shih, AP (7/26/18)

In one incident that took place last week (there were others elsewhere), a large group of PLA veterans wanted to take the train from Yantai city in Shandong to protest to the government in Beijing.  Unfortunately, the police prevented them from doing so, whereupon they made speeches and chanted slogans.  Here's a report in EnglishVideos and photographs available here.

And here are transcripts of what the men are shouting, first an individual, then in unison:

Chēzhàn jìngrán bù mài gěi wǒmen, píng shénme, wèishéme a, zhè jiùshì wǒmen Yāntái shì de qìchē zhàn, huǒchē zhàn.

fǎnduì dǎyā
fǎnduì wéiwěn
wǒmen yào qù Běijīng
yīfǎ wéiquán

huán wǒ biānzhì
huán wǒ dàiyù
huán wǒ shēnfèn
yǒnghù Gòngchǎndǎng




The station won't even sell us [tickets].  For what reason?  Why?  This is our Yantai City bus station and train station.

Oppose suppression
Oppose stability maintenance**
We want to go to Beijing
To defend our rights in accordance with the law

Return our*** authorized status
Return our identity
Return our pay
Support the Communist Party

[The last four lines are from longer versions of the video.]

In the fourth line from the end, I have hazarded a translation for biānzhì 编制, viz., "authorized status".  All of my graduate students from the PRC say that biānzhì 编制 is a difficult, complicated term with which they are not very familiar in this context.  They note that there are different types of biānzhì 编制, but that basically it has to do with the number of positions authorized by the government in a particular organization, including various army units.  Here is the Baidu encyclopedia entry on biānzhì 编制, and here is a post on its translation:

One of my students remarked, "The content does not make any sense. If people support the CCP, how can they fight against the stabilization?"

Another student observed:

I think that biānzhì 编制 refers to a type of institutional job where positions and duties are determined by the institution type, such as public research institutions. Usually 编制 jobs have better welfare programs and are more stable. Therefore, many people prefer 编制 jobs. I searched for the translation of 编制, some understand it as “authorized strength”. However, I don’t quite understand the correlation between these two terms, 编制 and “authorized strength”. Perhaps some think these jobs are symbols of a certain amount of strength wielded by those who hold them? It seems to me that they want their 编制 back because usually it’s (relatively) more stable compared to non-编制.  Moreover, having 编制 means better welfare programs.

These comments by another student seem to reflect a better grasp of what biānzhì 编制 really signifies:

编制, in short, means a kind of "iron bowl" to the generation of my parents. Basically, it refers to people who are in the system of government 'tǐzhì nèi 体制内' so that they can enjoy government benefits. If people have an authorized identity, first, their employers cannot dismiss them (to some extent, it is like tenure in a university). Most of the public services are categorized as belonging to the authorized system, such as hospitals, schools, and government. Second, besides the basic salaries, the Chinese government will provide these people with extra benefits such as insurance. Third, when these people retire from their jobs, they can get pensions from the government. Thus, the generation of my parents all wanted to find jobs which could provide them with authorized identities. However, the government determines the distribution concerning the number of people who can get authorized identities. It means that employers can only hire a certain number of authorized status employees according to the positions and the money allocated by the government. Thus, there is intense competition for the limited number of such authorized identities.

In fact, these retired soldiers are supposed to have authorized identities, thus they are entitled to a pension from the government. But in some local governments, corrupt officials "steal" their identities and give them to others, since people who have the identities get money every month. Considering the fact that these retired soldiers do not have an organization behind them, they are easily bullied. This is why they shout "Huán wǒ biānzhì 还我编制" ("Return our authorized status"). If they have 编制, they will have money to live. The local governments do not want them to go to Beijing because once the central government investigates the situation, many officials will lose their titles.

In this sense, we may say that biānzhì 编制 ("authorized status") is a tissue woven of weak fibers compared to those old, heavy, clunky iron rice bowls.

Notes and readings

*In an article in the May 14, 2007 issue of Newsweek, Robert J. Samuelson opined that China was pursuing an essentially neo-mercantilist trade policy that threatened to undermine the post–World War II international economic structure.  (cited in Wikipedia)

**The CCP is obsessed with wéiwěn 维稳 ("stability maintenance") and is terrified that widespread rioting and chaos might occur at any moment.  Consequently "stability maintenance" is a pillar of government policy, and it is because of "stability maintenance" that the CCP arrests so many human rights lawyers, feminists, and others who express dissatisfaction with any aspect of society that might reflect poorly on the government.  It is also the Party's rationale for the imposition of a police state and "reeducation camps" in Xinjiang.  In the recent protests described above, the disgruntled PLA veterans see wéiwěn 维稳 ("stability maintenance") being used as a weapon against their expression of legitimate grievances.

***The rhetoric of "return our XX" hearkens back to the May 4th Movement when demonstrating students called out "Huán wǒ Qīngdǎo 還我青島" ("Return our Qingdao") in opposition to the Chinese government's feeble response to the Treaty of Versailles, which ceded Tsingtao to Japan after Germany was defeated.


"Online Videos Show Veterans from Yantai City of Shandong Province Blocked from Taking Train to Beijing to Petition", Chinascope (7/25/18).

Robert J. Samuelson, "China's Wrong Turn on Trade", Newsweek (May 14, 2007).

[Thanks to Fangyi Cheng, Zeyao Wu, and Jinyi Cai]


  1. John burke said,

    July 29, 2018 @ 7:25 pm

    “Strength “ in British official (army, civil service) usage refers to the authorized complement of staff rather than to actual strength as opposed to weakness.

  2. D. Murphy said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 2:07 am

    Seconding John Burke, "authorized strength" is also common in the US military and DoD. I think "authorized billets" might work better in this case. Billets are actual slots in the table of organization, while strength is more the sum of all the billets in the organization.

  3. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 30, 2018 @ 11:31 am

    D. Murphy: Thanks, that may have been part of the explanation for why a former employer of mine referred to official permission to hire someone as a "bullet". Bullets were in short supply.

  4. Ray said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 1:08 am

    I wonder if it's also the case that biānzhì, being woven, implies a kind of basket-like container, where rice can slip through, as a contrast to the old iron rice bowl image… there is something flexible, permeable, and transitory about a basket of rice (and its shifting, hard-to-measure contents) that's very different than the solidity and permanence of an iron bowl of rice (and its known, measurable contents), even though both are containers (for one's assets or livelihoods).

    the parallel in the u.s. would be how jobs are less stable or set for life than they once were, and how one is expected to be flexible and mobile in having a job, or multiple part-time jobs, or job-sharing roles in our burgeoning gig economy. (a parallel in britain might be the contrast between the old, vanishing civil service jobs and the rise in zero-hour contract jobs)

  5. JK said,

    July 31, 2018 @ 5:58 pm

    I've seen it translated as "commission" before, not sure if that is applicable here

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