(Left to right across the bottom: Land 912, Ruike P-801, Firebird FH41 CF, Y-Start LK5016, TwoSun TS112 Knight. Left to right across the top: Real Steel Black Cat, Kubey KU166)
Looking around Drop I see some love and rather more hate for Chinese knives.
It's one of those things where everyone's coming to the table from a slightly different direction and has their own reasons for feeling how they do. Not too many people are neutral on the topic. Sparks fly.
Me? I'm a big white Midwesterner, born in a small-ass flyspeck of a town 20 miles south of the edge of nowhere. I've traveled some, but never to China; I've worked for Chinese businessmen, but only in the US; I don't speak the language beyond ordering food and I have about as many natural connections to the Chinese knife industry as I do to the man in the moon. I grew up seeing the cheapest things stamped 'Made in China' and knowing people who had fought, when they were younger, in the Korean War against Chinese 'volunteers'. (Which most of us learned about watching MASH.)
To us, China was shady, an enemy, a punchline - a place where cheap BS got made, and if you would have asked me even as late as three years ago if any decent knives were made in China I might have still said no. I might have said 'maybe Taiwan. Not the mainland.' But I don't think I'd have ever said an unqualified yes. So that's where I'm coming from - the long way around. I'm just some dude that's been long since fed up with how lousy some things are made in our society, that one day stopped and took apart his $16 Chinese knife to see why it worked so well, and in the process began slowly but surely changing his mind about Chinese knives.
If hearing that is enough that you're already prepared to disagree, and you're gearing up now and you're just looking for something to rebut - don't worry. It's cool. I know I won't change your mind for the same reason that I'm the only one that could change mine. Most people don’t change their mind, period. How it is. But some of these facts might surprise you a little all the same...
1) Most Chinese knife makers got their start taking orders from Western firms, with whom they still directly work. A lot of them are OEMs for the Western firms and they make the very knives that they're later accused of ripping off. The deals are made with the understanding that after a noncompete period passes the OEM will be free to market their own variations of the design, within a set of constraints that both parties agreed to in negotiation before finalizing it in the contract. Western firms don't draw too much attention to this sort of thing. They know that by and large their market segments are different anyway. They also, it must be said, keep going back to these OEMs. The deals are lucrative. So while they're generally pleased to see that their fans see them as being victimized by their OEMs, they aren't victims. They're volunteers, and they're taking your money to the bank.
2) Chinese knives sold in the West are commissioned by Western brands as the cheapest priced offerings they plan to sell that year, and their quality level reflects it. You, as the consumer, are supposed to want something more expensive - no matter how expensive your thing already is, no matter what you're buying or you've bought, you're supposed to already be wanting the next, better, more expensive thing that you couldn't afford. You're also supposed to think all Chinese work sucks. Even though you buy it. That's how captive markets work. It's the bottom tier of what's available to you in the store. That's also why when it's really a good piece of work, one that'd make you go 'whoa, this was made in China?' and maybe start thinking that the Chinese are making good stuff nowadays? Often you have to work hard to be able to learn that it was made in China. That’s down to the importers, because they want more money for what they sell. To most folks, Chinese still means cheap. It's only been in the last couple years that the best Chinese names like Reate and WE Knife have had the chops to ask for and get Western pricing for their high quality knives.
3) China has a whole city in its most populous province devoted to pocket knife and scissors manufacture, and they have operated it around the clock since the 1990s. It's called Yangjiang and it's where the majority of Chinese knives are made. They encouraged knifemakers to move there and set up shop. How many cutlery manufacturers are there in Yangjiang? Over 1500. That's not a typo, the city has over one thousand five hundred factories making knives or parts for them. It's the Chinese Solingen. The cost of this investment from the Chinese government was more or less paid for a thousand times over by all the orders from the West it's fulfilled in those decades since. Some of those operations are content to just keep making cheap stuff, because it's what they do. And there's cheap startups that are essentially a building full of parts, stock, CNC machines and people with no secondary education or training in knives churning out knives made with boutique designs and materials but no craft. All that exists. But nowadays in Yangjiang, you also have a core residency of machinists and smiths and designers that know knives, that live and breathe them. Like we do. Like fat guys love pie. It's in the blood with these folks, their parents and sometimes their grandparents made knives. If you ask them what they do, they wouldn't say factory worker. They'd say craftsmen, you understand? They would not be wrong. They know about grinding. They know about heat treating. They know about ergonomics. And they don't want to do cheap work or be known for cheap work anymore. They want to make the best knives anyone can make, and their government has their back. (Google 'Made in China 2025' if you want to understand more about this.)
4) The majority of Chinese knives aren't even intended for Western markets, especially clones. And the people to whom those clones are marketed aren't people who were ever going to buy the original. We get outraged like it's all about us, and these knives are made to be snuck onto our own shelves in an elaborate bamboozle or something, but we only get them over here because enterprising people go get them and resell them in the West. IIRC only about 10% of Chinese branded knife production goes to the US. A large chunk of it goes to Eastern Europe, where Western brands aren’t established or are nalyevo. An increasingly larger piece of it stays in Asia to feed the demands of the new and growing Asian middle class economies. At times like this it's worth remembering that in terms of world population, every seventh person on Earth is quite literally a Chinese farmer, and those people aren't ever gonna buy the original Sebenza. The guy who wanted to buy a Sebenza to impress all his coworkers and buddies isn't going to go 'wait, I have a better idea, I'll impress them more with this $14 version'. And one more point: as many Western designs as the Chinese appropriated without paying for them? They have a ways to go before they catch up to the number of times Western designs have been used by Western companies without properly paying the designer, because of some contractual sleight of law, or just because they're bastards who don't always pay for things either. Let’s not forget that.
So while the theory's fine, in practice a lot of the outrages about 'clones' end up being about as victimless a crime as home grown doob. It's what comes up when people discuss their issues with China, because people feel that talking about cloning and intellectual property won't get them accused of racism or whatever, and talking about other things might. The truth is, we usually don't like or dislike things for deep, meaningful, rationally well thought out reasons that we can reliably translate into words when someone asks. Babies like and dislike things. The process really doesn't mature all that much. We just pretend it has. And when you point out a few problems about the outrage over the knife ‘cloning’ issue, it generally doesn’t dissuade the outraged.
5) That's because it's not really about cloning or property rights for most folks. They see that as something that is wrong, not THE thing that is wrong. And folks don’t want to say what THE thing is, out loud, but it's pretty simple to understand: they feel threatened by the Chinese. The only real cultural analogue for this in the American social consciousness is war, which folks run with in their minds and share their words, because they feel an existential threat from the Chinese worker. It's all over their TV, it's what they talk about, they feel like China is a threat to them and many, many people they care about. It's one of the reasons some folks will never in a million years agree to anything I'm saying here -- they'd find it disloyal to their peers and to their kinfolk who used to work in factories that long ago shut down and moved production overseas. It's a social issue. And you know what? Misplaced as I might find it in this case, I respect honor. I get it. Like I keep saying, I don't expect to change anyone's mind.
There's just one thing I want to ask you: all those shuttered American factories and workers out of their job.... you know how many of them got closed down because the Chinese came in, bought up and shut down, threw all the skilled laborers out of work, stole their retirement, hauled off everything of value, and went and set up shop back in China so they could make a killing selling us the things we used to make? Folks, this is important -- that has happened zero times . The Chinese, a Communist foreign power and the most likely nation to displace the US one day as the world's greatest superpower, our economic competitors and occasional battlefield enemy, the 'Red Chinese Menace' still never once did that to us. Neither did the Mexicans, neither did the Canadians.
How'd those factories shut down? That was all Americans. Our own people.
Remember back in the 90s all that stuff about the WTO? That was us. 'Downsizing', 'offshoring', and 'outsourcing'? That was us too. 'Service economy'? Yup -- us. "International supply chain" - us, with bells on. And we let ourselves get away with it, because whenever anyone objected the wealthy trotted out practiced 'free market' arguments, as though these markets are really free anymore, and not largely controlled by a comparative handful of unspeakably wealthy people born from old money and new industry, who were making an absolute filthy killing in the modern marketplace. They made it seem like the people who wanted to keep their jobs were just backwards, and needed to go off to college and learn how to be a software engineer instead.
Now here we are, with large social groups of people, majority and minority, who feel like they can't get a job and they don't have a safety cushion. Your friends. My friends. There's a lot of rage and no small amount of fear. And it keeps people from looking around for the man behind the curtain or the large bag in his hands, which happens to be full of all the money everyone else is missing. But we don't see that guy, and we want someone to blame for everything. Enter the Chinese.
So we have this narrative in America about cheapass Chinese labor, but the reality has been a little different for some time. The truth is if you buy a SRM or one of the affiliated brand names, or a Ganzo, or a TwoSun or any of the other Chinese brands that are trying to establish themselves in the West, and you open it up and look inside - really look at it -- you're going to see what I saw. And if, like me, you at the time had no particular reason to believe it until you saw it, it's probably going to be a little disconcerting. The build quality and parts are not just a little better than anything the Western brands provide on their budget models (invariably cheap white nylon washers). They're way better than that. Because you literally have to buy and take apart a midtech knife to find better than the sort of washers on a $16 SRM knife. And it goes onto the more expensive knives. If you open up a $25 SRM instead of a $16 one? You find caged ceramic bearings running in milled pockets in the blade. Up and down the cost spectrum they're adding value. When you can buy a precision made titanium and M390 frame lock with ceramic bearings turning on race washers for $70, you stop being as interested in paying several hundred dollars for the American version, and you start wondering exactly what's going on. Once you see it you can't unsee it. Our manufacturers have been selling us short for a while now, by comparison. They figure a wink is as good as a nod to the blind man. And we've all been falling for it.
So yeah nowadays this loyal and patriotic American owns a lot of damned good Chinese knives (and a few shitty ones that snuck through the wire....I suggest avoiding Eafengrow, OerLa, WTT, Canku and Albatross in general). I'm happier for that. My Sanrenmus and Ganzos and Harnds and TwoSuns sit right alongside my US knives and UK knives and Spanish knives and Italian knives and German knives and Japanese knives, Nepalese knives, Swedish knives, Pakistani knives, El Salvadoran knives, South African knives, Filipino knives, Finnish knives, French knives. Even got a Swiss knife someplace. They’re knives. I buy them.
There are limits. There's still plenty of junky knives coming out of China and I do a little research before I check out a new manufacturer. I seek out proven manufacturers when buying and avoid third parties whenever possible unless they're large enough to be held accountable. I won't buy an outright clone because even I can recognize in that case there's a meaningful property rights issue. That's money I can see coming out of the designer's pocket. But I'm OK going with legal definitions of different. So long as it's made of what it says it's made of, and there's visible design differences and it's got the maker's real logo on it, no fake logos, the law generally doesn't consider it to be a counterfeit item. If we've got that and it's well made, I could honestly GAF if it resembles a wildly successful Western knife. Chances are good I own that one too. By most some standards my knife collection is modest but you'd still have to hunt pretty hard to find a US knifemaker who could gripe about my buying habits.
If someone can build me something solid and true in this day and age of perfidy and bullshit ephemera, coming from every direction? I’m interested. To me, that's its own honesty. That's where I come out on this.
How about you?
If that sounds good to you, check out the comments and you'll see a wide range of specific Chinese made knives I've bought and analyzed from an EDC use perspective.
And as always -- if you liked this thread, and you have a Chinese made pocket knife that you think is cool, snap a quick pic and share it in the comments!
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