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Small Talk About History Of Chinese Cleaver

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One of Five Important Kitchen Tools

When studying about the Chinese culinary culture, one must first study the five important kitchen tools – the iron wok, iron cleaver, iron cooking shovel, wooden cutting board, and bamboo steamer. Let’s first look into one of these five tools – the Chinese cleaver.

How Does It look like In Ancient Time?

How did a Chinese cleaver look like 4500 years ago? And how did our Chinese cleavers transform into the way they are today? Let us see how they evolved in our history.

Lantian Stone Knife

There has been a long history of Chinese cleavers. Its earliest form can be traced back to the Primitive Times, when Lantian Man (a species of archaic humans) who lived in Shaanxi nearly 800,000 years ago used arrow-headed rocks that were mainly used to slice through animal flesh and cut plants’ roots. Needless to say, our ancestors, with limited skills, could only make use of naturally formed objects to serve different cutting purposes. These objects in no way looked like cleavers used by the later generations.

V Shape Cleaver

Cleavers used in the kitchen appeared about 4500 years ago, during the Longshan Culture Period. Archaeologists discovered a historical relic – four bluestones in Taosi Historic Site, Shanxi Province. This is a V-shaped stone made cleaver, truly revealing what they looked like in ancient China. Other relics that were unearthed at the same time were seven wooden cutting boards, probably fabricated in the same period. Together with these relics, archaeologists also found traces of pork’s ribs and meat, making them a complete set of evidence which shows that these stone-made tools are exactly the ancestors of Chinese cleavers.

It is important to note that the stone made cleavers unearthed in Taosi Historic Site are actually kitchen knives, a collective term for vegetable-cutting tools, meat-cutting tools, etc. Therefore, what was used in that era was, in fact, a multi-purpose Chinese cleaver.

Classification

During the Slavery Society, about 2500 to 4000 years ago, these stone made cleavers give way to bronze cleavers. You can sometimes see them in one of the unearthed relics from the Shang Dynasty(around 1600-1046BC). The bronze cleavers became more used professionally during the pre-Qin period(the old stone age-221 BC). Then, after the Qin(221-207BC) and Han Dynasty(202BC-8AD), knives started to be classified into different categories, according to different needs in the kitchen. With the development of iron-smelting technology in the Han Dynasty, a few iron-made cleavers started to appear as well.

With this development, the differences between a meat cleaver and a vegetable cleaver became obvious during the Tang Dynasty(618-907AD). Both acting as kitchen knives, they had completely been differentiated and formed as a separate kind of knives.

SONG Cleaver

Then, when looking into the Song Dynasty(960-1279AD), the shape of a kitchen knife was even more obvious as seen on the excavated wall paintings. In that era, a profession called ‘female culinary chefs’ were specifically hired by rich and powerful people. They were in charge of all the tasks of cutting in the kitchen. Such activities were clearly recorded on the wall paintings of some ancient tombs, which are still preserved in a good condition. On some of the paintings, the female culinary chefs are cutting and slicing meat using an elongated knife. These elongated knives with a flat point look similar to nowadays’ watermelon knives. And therefore, they started to look like a modern Chinese cleaver.

YUAN Cleaver

Name of CAI DAO

During the Yuan Dynasty(1271-1368AD), aside from ‘kitchen knife’, the name ‘Chinese cleaver’ (in Pinyin: Cai Dao) was widely used in traditional Chinese opera and storytelling. Since then, the middle and lower levels in the Chinese society had all started to use the term ‘Cai Dao’, the knife that is used both for cutting vegetables and meat. The term ‘meat cleaver’ soon disappeared in our history.

MING Cleaver

The Prototype Of Modern Chinese Cleaver

At the Ming(1368-1644AD) and Qing Dynasty(1636-1912AD), people were already using a kind of Chinese cleaver that reassembled to what we use now. It’s also during these two Dynasties when the Palace and the upper level in society started to accept the term ‘Chinese cleaver’ being used by the lower sector. This term was also frequently deployed in official and legal documents.

A Perfect Fit of Cleaver And Chinese Cuisine

You may wonder how a V-shaped, boomerang-looking Chinese cleaver transformed into a rectangular-bladed one. This cannot be explained without looking into the development of cooking methods in China. Since the Song Dynasty, when slicing, chopping and mincing of the meat were often required during the preparation of cuisine, a rectangular-bladed Chinese cleaver would come in handy, as its upper part(the spine) was much heavier than its cutting edge, it, therefore, could effectively do all the slicing, chopping and mincing of meat and vegetables. This is something a western cleaver cannot achieve, as they usually come with a pointed shape which is not possible to perform so many kinds of food preparation. The broad rectangular blade also serves to scoop up chopped food for transport to the wok or bowl, making the whole process extra convenient. This has truly shown how multi-functional a Chinese cleaver is. All parts of a Chinese cleaver – its spine, its face, its point and its handle, have their unique usages and characteristics.

A demand must be met by abundant resources in order to reach success. The iron-smelting technology had greatly developed and improved since the Song Dynasty, providing limitless resources to fabricate these all-purpose Chinese cleavers. With an extensive use and a stable supply of materials, the manufacturing process of Chinese cleavers develop simultaneously and finally forming their current shape of today.

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