Getting your cleaver sharpened in China is well worth the price of admission. It’s not expensive, but it’s quite a show. Especially when law enforcement gets involved.

Want to get your cleaver sharpened by a professional in China? Here’s what ya do. You have to wait, sometimes weeks or months, for the traveling knife sharpening guy to come through your neighborhood. Usually they arrive with their whetstone wheel on the back of a cart or bicycle and set up shop right in the middle of a sidewalk.

A hand-powered whetstone on a metal and wood stand. The plastic bottle holds the water (yes, water, not oil) and the bullhorn is for advertising. The shoes are for awesome.

This is basically how I imagine they used to sharpen swords back in the days of knights and dragons. Minus the plastic bottle, bullhorn, and shoes, of course.

So, I think the guy should have some cool medieval name for his occupation, am I right? Like lorimer (maker of horse gear), oynter (oil merchant), hetheleder (seller of heather as fuel), or chandler (no one can ever quite remember what that guy’s job was).

Alas, the official medieval title for someone who uses a whetstone to sharpen knives seems to be nothing more than “grinder.” Really? That’s it? Terribly disappointing. I’ve got to come up with a better title for this guy because he deserves better than “hoagie, syn.”

Anyway, once this guy gets into your neighborhood, he will sing out a short but very loud song, sometimes with the aid of the afore-mentioned bullhorn. (Remember that “very loud” part because it becomes important later in this story.) Someone help me out if I’m wrong, but I think he sings “lái mó dāo!” which means, “come sharpen knives!” And, seriously? Is it not even more medieval that he sings a song to announce his presence? “Hot Cross Buns” and all that.

Okay, so, as soon as you hear the song, you grab whatever cutlery you need sharpened and out ye get, ye good people of Notthingham.

So, that’s what happened one day when we were in our small town. I heard the call of the wandering whetstondle*, grabbed our dull cleaver and rushed out, as fast as one can rush when one is carrying substantial cutlery. I hoped I hadn’t missed him. These guys move on quickly if they don’t see customers coming out right away. Thankfully, he was down a few buildings just setting up his wheel. Whew!

Now, what follows is a major Life in China Hint: the best way to figure out a fair price is to eavesdrop on what the vendor tells a local person. Second best option is for them to tell you the price in front of a local person.

Luckily for me, that’s basically what happened. When I got there, a neighbor happened to be in the middle of asking how much the cleveneur* would charge. Perfect timing! He answered that it would depend on the size of the knife. I held up my cleaver as an example and asked, “What about something this big? How much?”

He considered my cleaver for a moment, then said it would be 10 kuai. The neighbor nodded. “Okay, I’ll be right back,” she said, then went upstairs to get her knives. I figured that was a good sign—she didn’t argue or balk at that price. So, I agreed to 10 kuai for my cleaver without even trying to bargain. I’m lousy at bargaining.

The guy set to work. It’s pretty awesome to watch them do this.

Round and round the wheel goes, and the guy just seems to know what angle to hold the knife at, when to add water, all that. I mean, I guess he should since it’s his livelihood and all, but I’m also lousy at sharpening knives, so this is impressive to me.

So, while the knivenswain* is doing his thing, I realize how cool it would be to record the song he does. You know, for posterity. For when all of China is finally swallowed up in modernization and McDonald’s, and guys like this don’t exist anymore. So, I ask him if he’d be willing to be recorded.

“You want to record me? Sure, go ahead and record whatever you want.” He’s laughing as he says this. He’s thoroughly amused that this crazy laowai wants to record something as mundane as his song.

I call my husband (on my phone, not shouting up as would be more culturally appropriate) and see if he can get his recording equipment ready. He’s got some pretty cool stuff for field recording. He agrees, but the guy is basically finished with my cleaver. As we’re exchanging cleaver and payment, the neighbor lady arrives with her fruit knife and small vegetable knife. I decide to go drop off the cleaver and help my husband with his equipment, so I start up to our apartment.

While we’re inside our place, I realize something bad is starting to happen down near the whetstone. I can hear loud arguing that is getting more and more heated. I peer down from our window to survey the situation.

There’s the sharpesdier* along with Neighbor Lady #1, who’s waiting for her knives and some other neighbor plus assorted kids. But now they’ve been joined by two of our apartment complex’s guards who are gesturing angrily. Uh oh. I don’t think the grinderman* is going to be down there for much longer.

We scramble ourselves and the recording equipment out the door, and as they see us arrive, the argument suddenly cools off. Interesting.

We’re not sure what to do but since things look stable, my husband starts to set stuff up.

Just as he has pointed the microphone at the knifenary* and asked him to begin singing, one of the guards half-mumbles a protest. He explains that the whetman’s* song is so loud that it has disturbed the peace, plus they don’t allow merchants to set up shop inside the apartment complex. We gather that the guards were just about to throw him out when we walked into the scene.

Well, this is awkward.


The master of the whets* comes to the rescue and tells the guards, “Look, these foreigners want to record the song. I’ll just sing it once more, and then that’s it. I’ll sing it and finish up these knives and be gone. Okay?”

The guards reluctantly agree to this plan, and even look amused for some of the photos. We sheepishly get the recording, then scoot out of there as quickly as we can. The cutleriant* does the same, probably happy to have foreigners to shield him from the guards because it meant he was allowed to finish our neighbor’s knives before getting evicted.

That was three years ago, and when I finally got around to getting the recording transferred, we discovered that the storage device had gone kaput. No!!!

So much for all that awkwardness and effort to record the guy. In those three years, I have never seen a wandering grinder again. Perhaps China’s rapid development really has swallowed him and all his buddies up.

If one happens to come to where you are, record the song, would ya? Posterity and I will thank you for it.

*I don’t think any of these is going to become the cool new title for this poor grinder, but it was fun to try. Let me know which one you liked best!

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