Once upon a time, each individual was assigned to a dānwèi upon graduation from university. The dānwèi could be a factory, office, farm, school, etc. The dānwèi system guaranteed lifetime employment, but, unfortunately for the worker, the assignments were made by government agencies where decisions were rarely based on the individual’s goals or talents.

Although dānwèi is translated as “work unit”, its actual description goes much deeper. The nature of the dānwèi is more like and extended family in that in addition to a job, the employee receives a host of benefits, including housing, childcare, health insurance, and pensions. Some dānwèi even provide extended facilities and social subsidies, such as a cafeteria where workers and their families can eat at little or no cost. The dānwèi, in turn, controls the career of its employees. Each individual has a personnel file which records his or her family background, job performance, and other activities; it is virtually impossible for the employee to transfer to another dānwèi without this file, and therefore without your current dānwèi’s permission. The dānwèi reflects in many ways the Confucian beliefs, with the company acting as provider and protector, the parental role, in exchange for absolute loyalty, the role of the child, in this case the employee.

The dānwèi has been called the “Iron Rice Bowl”, symbolizing lifetime employment and social support. Under this system, university graduates are guaranteed jobs, although by no means jobs that match either their qualifications or interests.

The government has begun to dismantle the dānwèi system, although there are certainly those who would prefer to retain this traditional system, both for its security and for its social structure. Outside of the dānwèi, university graduates in particular have a chance to choose a job more compatible with their abilities at a considerably higher salary and greater job mobility. The trade-off, of course, is that job security is relinquished and the many social services traditionally taken care of by the employer become the responsibility of the employee.