Rice is the main food for most of the human population, so sustainable rice production is very important for food security. The fertility of the soil in paddy fields is the key factor controlling rice growth and production. Steel slag amendment is becoming an effective method to increase the soil fertility, stabilize rice production and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in Asiatic paddy fields (i.e. Korea, Japan, Bangladesh and China). We studied the relationships of steel slag amendment with plant–soil nutrient allocation, stoichiometry and rice yield in a paddy field in subtropical China. Amendment was associated with higher soil N and P availability, lower available-N:available-P ratio and higher available Ca and Si concentrations. Increases in P, Ca and Mg availability were correlated with high yields. High yields under steel slag amendment were also associated with high foliar and stem N and P concentrations and lower N:P ratios and with high shoot/root N and P concentration ratios, traits that are typically associated with productive ecosystems able to support species with high growth rates. The positive correlation between steel slag application and yield was partially due to an indirect effect (35% of the total effect) of enhancement of soil Ca, Si and P availability, which were positively correlated with yield. Steel slag amendment in this paddy field increased plant growth and yield by enhancing nutrient availability, altering soil and plant stoichiometry and shifting stem:root nutrient allocation.