As a daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, I spent every night of my childhood cooking and eating traditional Chinese dinners with my family. Our nightly food-prep routine—smashing knobs of ginger, slicing slivers of beef for stir fry, chopping veggies—doubled as nonnegotiable bonding time. Quickly, what started as a chore grew into a precious part of our days.
From those decades’ worth of meals, one knife, shuffled from hand to hand, emerged as everyone’s preferred cooking tool: the Chinese cleaver. Also known as a Chinese chef’s knife, the cleaver is a staple of the cuisine, rivaled in utility only by the wok and chopsticks. We reach for it for every task from crushing aromatics to filleting fish—it’s the ultimate do-it-all tool.
My own cleaver is a brandless model that my father picked up in a small shop in New York City’s Chinatown 40 years ago (somewhat similar to this one). I’ve found it tough to track down my cleaver’s exact origins, but it’s still in great shape, which shows that when treated with care, these tools can become family heirlooms. If you’re seeking to invest in a cleaver of your own, you can probably find a good one at a restaurant-supply store or Chinese grocer (if you have one in your area), as long as you know what to look for. Or, for a sure bet, you could try one of the following expert-recommended options that are ubiquitous in Chinese kitchens:
Lucas Sin, chef-owner of Junzi Kitchen and Nice Day, recommends the Shi Ba Zi Zuo Professional Chef Knife, with a durable carbon-stainless blade, and the versatile stainless steel Chan Chi Kee Small Stainless Cleaver. “Basically every single Chinese restaurant I’ve ever worked in or ever stepped foot in has a Chan Chi Kee knife,” says Sin. For a razor-sharp carbon-steel cleaver that requires a bit more maintenance, Randy Lau, the creator of Made With Lau, recommends the Dexter Russell Traditional 8″x 3 1/4″ Chinese Chefs Knife. (It’s also recommended by Serious Eats and Bon Appétit.) “[That knife] was the standard for Chinatown chefs,” said Lau. “Not only did it get me through college, that exact knife fed a lot of would-be engineers, doctors, and lawyers in our generation.”
What is a Chinese cleaver?
A typical Chinese cleaver has a large, rectangular blade bound by a wooden handle. It differs from a Western-style chef’s knife in a number of ways. For one, it lacks a pointed tip and instead has a squared-off blade with a broad surface area. A Chinese cleaver is also significantly heavier. Mine weighs a little over 10 ounces (by comparison, Wirecutter’s top pick for a Western chef’s knife weighs 6.6 ounces). Whereas the weight of a Western chef’s knife is distributed evenly between the blade and the handle, a Chinese cleaver’s weight is concentrated in the blade, making it front-heavy. To the uninitiated, the shape and heft can be intimidating—my father once accidentally dropped our cleaver on the kitchen floor, and it was the tile, not the knife, that fractured into pieces. But with practice, I learned that gravity is on my side, as the force and momentum can help produce clean cuts with less effort.
Generally, these knives are classified into two types. First, meat cleavers, or gudao (“bone knife” in Mandarin), tend to weigh more, have thicker blades, and are meant for hacking through hard bones. The other type is a vegetable cleaver, often called a caidao (“vegetable knife”), a slicer, or a Chinese chef’s knife. A caidao, like the Shi Ba Zi Zuo model that Sin recommends, has a thinner blade and is intended for more delicate work. There’s also a third style that’s a bit less common, but I find it to be the most useful. Often referred to as a chopper, it’s a hybrid of the other two, with a blade that is thickest at the heel and thinnest at the front end. Choppers, like the Dexter Russell and the Chan Chi Kee, combine the utility of a gudao and a caidao to be the most versatile option in the kitchen.
How to use your cleaver
The Chinese cleaver represents a force of both strength and precision; the same tool that can carve up a chicken can serve to gently score the outermost skin of a mushroom cap. A chopper-style cleaver like mine is especially versatile, as it’s suited to both large, aggressive movements like cleaving and fine, precise ones like mincing and slicing.
Take the way my dad uses the chopper to make a steamed-fish dish that’s a favorite in our household. With a whole fish in one hand and the cleaver in the other, first he scrapes the belly of the blade down the length of the fish to descale it. Then he lays the fish on a cutting board and uses the heel of the knife to chop off the tail. Finally, since scallion rings would overpower the dish’s subtle flavors, he wields the front end of the blade to slice hair-thin ribbons for a wispy garnish. (Once you’re a proud cleaver owner, there’s a universe of Chinese knife methods to explore.)
A cleaver doesn’t replace all knives—for example, it can’t saw through a loaf of bread as well as a serrated knife can. But if you’re looking for an all-in-one tool, a Chinese cleaver comes pretty close. In the gallery below, you can see just a few examples of the many (and sometimes unexpected) ways you can use one.
How to find the perfect cleaver
When picking a cleaver, here are some factors you should consider:
Blade steel: If you’re a serious home cook, you might consider a carbon-steel blade, but that material comes with some downsides. Although such a blade is easier to sharpen and likely to hold its edge longer, carbon steel is also brittle and prone to rust, so it requires a high level of knife care. On the flip side, stainless steel is rust resistant and less likely to chip, but it’s a softer steel, so a stainless steel knife is more susceptible to warping and will dull faster. For the best of both worlds, we recommend a carbon-stainless blend, which combines the durability of carbon steel with the rust resistance of stainless.
Blade shape: Some cleaver blades are rectangular, while others are slightly rounded from tip to heel. Both are well suited to push cutting (video) and making clean, uniform cuts like those needed for a stir fry. I prefer the rounded belly, which offers the bonus of being great for rock-chopping herbs, as one would with a Western knife.
A full tang: The blade should extend all the way to the end of the handle, where it’s secured with pins or rivets (the part of the blade inside the handle is called the tang). This construction ensures that aggressive smashing or cleaving won’t dislodge or break your blade.
A comfortable grip: A cleaver should also feel sturdy in your hand, balanced, and comfortable to wield. Lesley Stockton, Wirecutter senior staff writer and author of our guide to the best chef’s knife, advises shopping for a knife in person if you can, so that you can grip a few different models. “Make sure the cleaver is comfortable to hold while you’re using a pinch grip,” Lesley says. Your thumb and forefinger should hold either side of the blade while your three other fingers grip the handle, as shown in this video. “That provides maximum control when you’re cutting.”
A straight spine: Examine the spine with the tip pointed away from you to make sure that it’s straight and that there are no dings along the edge of the blade. Any defects will hinder a clean, precise cut.
Price: Chinese cleavers are relatively inexpensive. You can find models that are hundreds of dollars, but a midrange cleaver that will perform well should go for $40 to $60.
If I were buying a brand-new cleaver today, I would start by going to a local restaurant-supply shop or Chinese grocer and asking for its knife recommendations for home cooks. If you live anywhere near New York City’s Chinatown and are able to shop in person, try Hung Chong Imports and Chef Restaurant Supplies, two restaurant- and kitchen-supply stores that are cornerstones of the community. Korin, a New York–based vendor of premium knives and restaurant supplies, also has an online store.
Make your cleaver last
Cleaver upkeep is similar to that of Western knives—just a couple extra minutes of care per use will dramatically extend its life. You should hand-wash your cleaver; the extensive heat and moisture from a dishwasher could damage the wooden handle, and rattling against other things could dull the blade. You should also wipe it dry right away, especially if you have a carbon-steel cleaver, which is prone to rusting. Use the cleaver only on a wood, plastic, or rubber cutting board, because anything else will dull the blade’s edge. I store my cleaver in a knife block to minimize any risk of damage.
As for sharpening, employ a honing rod before each use and a knife sharpener or a water stone a few times a year—you’ll notice a big difference cutting with a sharp knife, and you’re much less likely to hurt yourself. For a detailed guide on how to hone and sharpen a Chinese cleaver, this video is a great tutorial. When treated properly, these knives can last a lifetime. I hope your cleaver carries you and your family through decades’ worth of dinners, just as ours has for me and mine.
This article was edited by Gabriella Gershenson and Marilyn Ong.
1. Randy Lau, creator, Made With Lau, Zoom interview, July 14, 2021
2. Bill Leung, chef, The Woks of Life, Zoom interview, July 19, 2021
3. Lucas Sin, chef, Junzi Kitchen and Nice Day, Zoom interview, July 20, 2021
4. Lesley Stockton, senior staff writer, Wirecutter, Slack interview, July 20, 2021
5. Daniel Gritzer, The Chinese Cleaver Is a Serious Contender for Best All-Purpose Kitchen Knife, Serious Eats, December 3, 2019
6. Adina Steiman, The Cai Dao Chronicles, Epicurious, March 14, 2018
7. Mackenzie Chung Fegan, A Chinese Cleaver Is the Only Knife You Need, Says My Mom, Bon Appétit, November 10, 2020
8. Anne Loreto Cruz, The 5 Best Chinese Vegetable Cleavers, Bustle, January 10, 2021
9. Daniel Gritzer, Why Serious Cooks Use Carbon Steel Knives, Serious Eats, November 1, 2019
10. Fuchsia Dunlop, The Chinese cleaver is the only knife you need, The Economist, August 22, 2018