I have a long personal history with knives. By that statement, I do not mean that I have had a particularly long history of handling knives. Instead, I mean that my strong fear of knives has always been the determining factor in my relationship with them. I have spent the majority of my life actively avoiding knives when ever possible. Granted, avoiding knives has required daily compromises on my part, simply because knives are everywhere. They are tools of convenience in daily life. From cutting up ingredients for cooking to setting up camp in the woods, from completing art projects for school to stripping electrical wires to repair light fixtures in the house; knives are the tools of choice. Knives may well be one of the top ten most useful concepts to have ever be put into form and motion. But, I have a fear of of things as “Sharp as Knives”.
I am going to go out on a limb here and say that there are probably a lot of other people on the planet who also have had long personal histories with knives; relationships based upon their fears. Assuming the correctness of this statement, I find this to be a strange thing. There most certainly would be a number of people in this knife-fearing group who have had traumatic experiences with knives; giving them very good reason for their fears to out-rank their appreciation of the usefulness of knives. However, I am also prepared to assume that most people who are afraid of knives have not had any first-hand experiences which would warrant the degree of their fears. Knives seem to fall into the pile of physical things of which many human beings have an irrational fear: fire, lightning, water, snakes, sharks, insects, germs, and chainsaws, just to mention a few. All of the things in this pile can be hazardous to a person’s health when encountered under unfortunate circumstances. But, so can the things in the danger pile of: cars, hot tea, chicken bones, throw-rugs, high-heel shoes, and slippery bathtubs. The difference noted in the comparison of piles is that everyone probably has an irrational fear of at least one thing in the first pile; while few of us have any great fear of the items of danger in the second pile. We all know that people die every day from choking on chicken bones, from slipping in bathtubs, and from car accidents. We all know that hot tea can cause great pain and disfiguration when spilled on a human body. Throw rugs are the number one cause of falls within the home and high-heels do extensive damage to the spines of those who wear them regularly. Yet, rarely are people afraid of these things. Our fears of dangers are not always rational in relation to the dangers themselves. Why do we fear somethings which have little actual threat to us and why do we not fear other-things which are just as dangerous or more?
Well, as a matter of fact, there are only two fears which are innate to human beings: the fear of falling, and the fear induced by loud noises. All other human fears have been learned through personal experience and most fears are thought to be learned before the age of six. Personal experience can be direct or indirect. An example of a learned fear from direct experience is when a child picks up a knife and cuts herself. The child is hurt and becomes afraid of the knife; then internalizing a fear of the situation which caused the pain in order to avoid being hurt by a knife in the future. An example of a learned fear from in-direct experience is when a child approaches a knife and an adult rushes in to remove the knife and gives a strong emotional warning about how dangerous knives are; instilling a fear of knives into the child. What occurs to me is that learning a fear, as a young child, by way of in-direct experience is a very different situation than learning through direct experience. Fear acquired through in-direct experience is highly emotionally charged and comes without the feedback information of the physical consequences of the harm. A child becomes afraid and does not really understand the reasoning behind the fear. The fear becomes very visceral and the situation vague. Direct experience is crystal clear; the child knows quite well what the object is and why it needs to be avoided.
I have memories of learning fear from both direct and in-direct experiences. I learned directly that little boys playing with fishing lines and hooks are to be avoided, as well as the combination of wearing plastic high-heel play-shoes while walking on bathroom tiles with a glass in hand. I knew immediately that those two situations do not end well. Both caused pain; one from a fish hook caught in my upper-arm and one from a slit wrist from broken glass. The memories are vivid to this day. However, I have no non-situational fear of broken glass, nor do I have an out-of-context fear of fish hooks doing me bodily harm. I have merely learned to avoid situations similar to those which had harmed me. A number of the in-direct experiences of learning fear have also remained vivid in my mind. Those experiences, were indeed, emotionally charged and left within me a deeper sense of generalized fear of the subject matter than the situational fears. But, these deep fears of which I speak were taught by well-meaning family members in my early years and as far as I know, none of them were knife-related. So, the question for me remains, where did my fear of “knives” in particular come from? And, when did it begin to express itself?
I am going to go out on another limb here and say that the human psyche is not so easily explained by “either-or” theories. There is a very good reason why the field of Psychology is made up of many fields of psychology. Each field seeks to gain an understanding of the processes of human thought and behavior. Each field stands from a different perspective. As such, certain aspects of human processes are seen clearly from certain angles and others more clearly from other angles. Together, all the fields gather the information they observe and the theories which they generate from those observations. In essence, the nature of the beast is that an integration of the fields of inquiry is needed to understand the workings of the human mind in habitat. As for the questions posed above, I fear that the specifics needed to form the answers I seek have been long lost to the confines of time. What is left for my consideration are the vast and general influences of societies upon the development of the individuals within them. These influences are often referred to and explained as “culture”; the expression of a group’s attitudes, customs and beliefs. Simply put, if I had grown up in the jungles of the Amazon, the influence of the indigenous culture would have made it very unlikely for me to have developed a fear of knives. Instead, I grew up in a culture where the association with knives was first and foremost as an object of danger, heralding the potential of violence. The difference in attitudes between the two cultures mentioned is the difference between “respect” for and “fear” of knives. I tend to think that when a culture’s main attitude toward a knife is “respect” for its value as a tool, that the “fear” of knives will not be generalized; that fear will be an attitude brought to expression only for specific situations.
In preparation for writing essays about knives, I have come across the term “knife-cultures” in articles on the Internet. The term is used in a way which seems to assume the reader’s understanding of the term; without the author explaining what is meant. The intended meaning of the term becomes apparent in the body of the material as it is brought into the context of the topic of the article. I have noticed two basic connotations in use; one meaning the cultural tendency toward the use of knives for violence; the other meaning the cultural construction and development around the object of “knife” as being much more than a mere object. In the first connotation, knife-cultures are explained as arising out of temporary situations which limit the use of access to other viable weapons for violence. The use of the knife as a weapon becomes the choice of groups experiencing situational restrictions governing their options for dealing with their grievances. The second connotation refers to a long cultural development of groups where knives are placed at the center of their lives; and as such, the knives fulfill many roles within the structure of those communities. So far, I have only mentioned the knife in the roles of tools and violence. In the forming of knife-cultures, the roles of knives become increasingly varied as the culture develops. And, as the culture develops, it re-enforces the centrality of the knife within the fabric of the culture itself. Knives become more than tools and weapons; they find their places in such realms as religion, social customs, commerce, and personal identity. The social effects of removing or restricting the knives in knife-cultures will always be significantly dependent upon which category of “knife-culture” is experiencing the regulatory measures at hand.
Whereas both types of knife-cultures are intellectually interesting to contemplate; my main interest today is with a particular knife-culture of the second type. This is because I am interested in their knives. The knives of the Uyghur/Uighur/Uygur (pronounced: Wee-Grrrrr) people in Xinjiang, China are renowned for their beauty and their sharpness. These knives have been in development within Chinese Uyghur communities for at least the past 400 years. To understand the development of the knives, it is necessary to understand the development of the culture. To understand the present Uyghur culture, it is necessary to understand the importance of the knife within that culture.
This might seem to be a rather straightforward endeavor. Unfortunately, the history of the Uyghur people is anything but straightforward, nor is the history agreed upon by all parties who seek to define it. In my own search for information, I quickly came to realize that the telling of the history is lengthy and complicated; regardless of who is supplying the details of the story. This took me by surprise at first. Then, I rationalized that the histories of China typically cover not just centuries, but millennia as well. Chinese history is usually presented per portion and the portions are divided into courses which we called dynasties. In this way, the reader does not become as overwhelmed by the vast amount of information as she would if the entire history were presented at once. Another manner of dividing courses into portions is by considering only one particular topic of focus; thus allowing a digestible over-view of development of that topic throughout the dynasties.
In the case of the history of the Uyghur people, my sources were overwhelming me by presenting both great detail as well as serving every course of the meal at once. It was only after I learned of the “stride between visions” that I came to my own understanding of the presentations and forms of what I was reading. I believe that the detail in the telling of everything has to do with the perceived need for “proving” the historical identity of the Uyghurs. They are an ethnic minority living in an autonomous region of China. The national historians of China disagree with the many differing views of ethnic historians and populace folklore of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In addition, I learned that there are militant and non-militant separatist groups looking for historical views to back-up their claim for an independent state. This is a very sensitive subject; one which I am inclined to skirt around in this essay. The sensitive subject cannot be totally ignored, though. Later in the essay, the influence of this subject will be shown to bear upon the uncertain future of the knifes and the knife-culture itself. For now, a short course of Uyghur history served up by Kallie Szczepanski’s 2015 article “Who are the Uighurs?”; a source which seemed to be of a less biased mind than many others which I have read.
“DNA studies show that they [the Uyghurs] are a genetically mixed people of East Asia and Caucasian blood, and may be related to the Tochareans.” The first written recordings about the Uyghurs come from the Wei Dynasty (386-534 CE). In these writings they are described as being ethnic Xianbei/Mongols. Between this period and the period of which the Uyghurs were at their height of power (8th through 12th centuries CE) there was a seemingly constant struggle with and against other groups vying for the right of claim to the various lands the Uyghur had inhabited. The Uyghur tended to be sedentary farmers, townspeople, and merchants for many of their recorded centuries. Through the course of history, the locations of their lands changed. As the Uyghurs moved, their migrating always left a certain number of Uyghurs remaining behind. These former Uyghur lands have undergone their own histories of cultural and racial mixing; being a major reason why Uyghurs are to be found spread out over much of the Central Asian countries. The Chinese Uyghurs would eventually come to settle their heartland in the territory of the Tarim Basin in, what is now, Western China. The Uyghur Khaganate had controlled much of Inner and Outer Mongolia, as well as the heartland which is now known as Xinjiang. To conceptually realize the space involved, Szczepanski gives the reader the following words to capture their magnitude for the modern reader. “The Uighur Empire at its height stretched from Manchuria in the east to the Caspian Sea in the West.”
Genghis Khan conquered the Uyghur nation in the 12th century and incorporated the Uyghurs and their lands into the Mongol Empire. After the death of Genghis in 1227, the Uyghur lands came under the domain of Chagatai Khan and remained within this construction for several centuries. During the 17th and 18th centuries, many of the Uyghur fell under the domain of the Dzungar Khaganate (the last great nomadic empire of Central Asia). As such, they were ruled by the Oirats (the western division of the Mongols). In modern times it was China who ruled the Uyghur and their lands. This rule took many forms during the periods of changing political structures in the 20th century.; including Imperialist, Republican, Warlord, and Communist. After 1949, Xinjiang was firmly under Han Chinese control within the People’s Republic of China. Since that point in time, there has been a fairly continuous stream of separatist movements active in the region.
In this “history in a nut-shell” three salient factors need to be added. The first is that present-day Uyghurs are Muslims. This is important because their religion shapes their cultural expression and is a point of contention with the Han Chinese. One of the main cultural differences which results in conflict between these two groups is that the Han are “…mostly atheist, but allow for traditional ancestor-worship, Confucian philosophy, Taoism and/or Buddhism”. – Szczepanski. The Uyghurs are primarily Sunni Muslims. “Interestingly, early records suggest that the Uighurs were Manichaeans who converted to Buddhism around the 1100s. Gradually, between 1400s and 1600s, the Uighurs converted once more to Islam as Mongol converts introduced the faith into Uighur lands.” – Szczepanski.
The second factor which needs to be added is the capital of Xinjiang, Ürümqi; the heartland of the Uyghurs in China. As readers, we need to understand the importance of the Xinjiang region in general and of Ürümqi in particular. Basically, the region within Xinjiang was important because of the Silk Road. Ürümqi was important because of its location near the northern route of the Silk Road. There had long been nomads using the land of that area. But, the first true settlement was made by the Tang. The Tang went to war with the Dzungar and lost control of this region of the west. “The Uyghurs were introduced into the Ürümqi area in the 18th century by the Dzungars who moved them from the west Tarim regions to be taranchies or farmers in Ürümqi.” – Wikipedia. In 1755, the Qing were at war with the Dzungar Khaganate and took Ürümqi. In doing so, they committed genocide against the Dzungar. The Qing eventually set up two settlements close to each other; “Gongning Cheng” to the west for the Manchu banners and the seat of government, called “Manchu City”; “Dihua” being to the east for the Han Chinese troops, which is referred to as “Han City”. “The Ürümqi of the early period was therefore a twin city, with Gongning Cheng the administrative center while Dihua grew into Xinjiang’s commercial and financial center. Han Chinese from all over China began to move into Dihua, as did Chinese Hui Muslims from Gansu and Shaanxi. The origin of Hui in Ürümqi is often indicated by the names of their mosques. By 1762, more than 500 shops had clearly been opened by Chinese migrants to the area of modern-day Ürümqi. It had a Chinese flavor similar to eastern China.” – Wikipedia. After the Battle of Ürümqi in 1870; when Turkic Muslim forces fought against Dungan Muslim forces, Gongning was captured, the Chinese government was killed, the city was burnt and abandoned. The Qing regained control and in 1884 established Xinjiang as a province and Dihua as the capital. Ürümqi would become a hot-bed of contention between Uyghurs and Han Chinese from the 1990s up until and including the present; making knives an issue of conflict and disagreement.
The third factor to add takes us far back into the history of the Uyghurs, into the land of the Tiele in the valleys south of Lake Baikal around the Yenisei River. “The official Chinese view asserts the Uyghur to be of Tiele origin, and only became the main social and political force in Xinjiang during the ninth century when they migrated to Xinjiang from Mongolia after the collapse of the Uyghur Khaganate, replacing the Han Chinese that they claimed were there since the Han Dynasty.” – Wikipedia. The Yenisei River is rich in iron ore and the Uyghur are thought to have begun their metallurgy early; before their subjugation by the Xiongnu in 300 BCE. The Xiongnu valued the skills of the Uyghur and put them to work manufacturing weapons. When the rule of the Xiongnu collapsed, the Uyghurs were passed on as vassals to the Rouran and Hepthalite states for the purpose of metal smithing. These events signal the beginnings of the relationship which Uyghurs have with their knives; a relationship which eventually develops into a knife-culture of the type which would come to be an engrained element of their culture. Through the years, the Uyghurs improved their smithing skills and began to identify themselves with the craft. “Since the end of the 16th century, a knife with a wooden handle made by an ironsmith named Maimaiti Kulahun, who lived in Yengisar County, curved with a straight, square, round, teeth and triangular pattern, and coated with red, green and other colors, was particularly sharp and beautiful. The farmers there then copied it, so as to pass from generation to generation.” – The Cold Weapon
In time, knife makers began to compete with each other; continually improving the quality if the knives in the process. Innovative ideas, new shapes and design patterns were implemented as the materials used became more exclusive. Yengisar would become known throughout the world as the “hometown of the Chinese knife”. The knives, themselves, may be referred to by the names of Xinjiang, Uyghur and/or Yengisar. “Xinjiang Yengisar knife makes its mark with its delicate shape, beautiful decorations and the sharp edge. It is named after its origin Yengisar County, which is located on the western edge of the Tarim Basin in Xinjiang.” – The Cold Weapon
Having shared the reputation of these knives, it is now appropriate to share the unique features which have made the knives famous. Already mentioned are that the workmanship of the knives is very fine, the knives are esthetically pleasing to the eye, and they have an extreme sharpness of blade. Also mentioned was development of a wide variety of specific characteristics. From these varieties, there are only 12 types of blades which are officially accepted as being genuine Yengisar knives; examples being; bent, straight, arrow, and pigeon. The designs and color variations number to more than 30. Of the accepted forms, it is worthy to note that certain knive-forms and designs have more cultural appeal to particular groups than to others. For example, cultural preferences can be seen within the communities of the: Uyghurs, Kazaks, Han, Mongols and Tibetans. All knife designs are available in large, medium, and small sizes. Shapes bear creatively descriptive names such as: crescent moon, fish belly, phoenix tail, eagle, and lark head. The knife handles are made of any number of materials; with wood, horn, copper, silver, and jade being in popular demand. The handles are also found to be decorated using a great variety of designs. You can expect most Yengisar knives to be about 10-20 cm in length. The high range goes up to a half a meter, and the low range around 6 cm.
When assessing the Yengisar knives, there are a few technical aspects to consider. The author of “The Cold Weapon” writes that the first assessment can be done visually, even from just viewing a good photograph. The quality of workmanship and the materials should be easy to recognize. The next assessment needs to be of the quenching of the steel. The types of steel used are important to note. A knife could be made of stainless steel, spring steel, bearing steel, or some other type of steel. If the knife is stainless steel, the blade is most likely made by machine and has a handmade handle. Most Yengisar knives are made with bearing steel; but, even there, be aware that not all bearing steel is reliable. “Because since 1999 to 2003, many knife makers directly used the machine cutting bearing steel billet to grind it to knife and sand wheel. Some friends believe that the knife in Keel integration better and more robust. But in fact, it is not. The knives in Keel integration mostly are made from the steel billet cut by machine. Only those with side steel making craft are made by hitting with hammer.” – The Cold Weapon
The salient factors involved in the assessment of knives are a bit lost on me. If I had the desire to purchase a Yengisar knife, I would definitely need a reliable guide to advise me. Evidently, there have been many others who wanted to buy these knives, but, also felt inadequate in there abilities to make an appropriate assessment. Historically, the people who had bought these knives were well-informed knife users. These were locals who used the simple knives as tools and the ornate knives as very treasured gifts. The quality of the knives sold needed to be high because the buyers were knowledgeable about knives. The other group of customers were people who had traveled from afar to reach this western “frontier”. These were not tourists looking for a souvenir. During the end of the 20th century a “knife-tourism” developed. Busloads of tourist were suddenly arriving in Yengisar to buy knives. Knives were in demand and not all customers knew a well-made knife from a poorly-made knife. Business was booming. The main street became one long row of knife-shops, all selling Yengisar knives. And, “sell” they did; both high quality original knives, and lower quality machine made knives. Knives were also being sent to the bazaars in Ürümqi, to be sold by the hundreds and thousands. At that time, the state of China had few (if any) restrictions concerning the buying, selling, and transportation of the knives. Times have changed in response to violence. All manner of rules and regulations have come into effect in China; so quickly, that many of the officials charged with enforcing these laws are, themselves, unsure of the particularities of restrictions. The result has been that the knife-trade has suffered greatly. Their customers may only buy one knife each; whereas they had been buying large quantities and transporting them any way they wished. At present, even when purchasing one knife, the buyer must have it shipped to his or her home address directly from the seller.
On the Internet, I came across two rather comparable stories written about the authors’ personal experiences with knife-tourism in Yengisar: one in 2011 and the other in 2016. The first story was written by a knife-enthusiast; someone who knows about knives and was willing to travel a great distance to buy a Yengisar knife in Yengisar. The second story was written by a professional writer who has lived a number of years in Ürümqi. Both are interesting and worth sharing in this essay.
“Note that almost no one in this part of China is Chinese. The region borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, so many people there are Uyghur, Tajik, or Kurgyz. Now, being a knife nut, I didn’t just visit the glaciers and deserts. I also went to buy knives. Some of the most famous knives in China are made in the small town of Yengisar in Xinjiang Province. It is off the beaten path, to say the least. You have to take a six-hour flight from Beijing to Ürümqi, then a two-hour drive across the desert to Yengisar. Then you have to find a knife merchant who will take you to a knife-maker.” The author goes on to explain that these knife-makers have been using re-cycled metal of truck leaf springs to make their knives; and that they have been doing so the last 50 years. The reason he needed to find someone who would take him to a knife-maker is that Yengisar looks like a ghost-town. The main street is still filled with small knife-shops. But, they have closed their doors and locked them. All their knives are behind locked doors. There are times when some stores are opened; but, exactly where and when are difficult to predict. Knives are still being made, though. And, the knife-making skills continue to be a family trade in which knowledge is traditionally transferred from father to son.” – magnanimous_G
“Each knife-making family in Yengisar has a forge and makes knives either for presentation or for daily use. The knives are important in local culture; a Uyghur man keeps his knife for life because in this part of the world, you might just live and die by the knife. They use it to hunt, eat, work, and sometimes even fight. Its a very similar knife culture to the Gurkhas with their Kukris. No Uyghur man goes anywhere without his knife. I saw some that had been re-sharpened so many times over many decades that the blades were less than an inch wide. The knives are very high quality and not cheap by local standards. A good knife will cost around 300 Yuan (about 50 dollars) in a part of the world where people might not see that much in a month of hard work.” – magnanimous_G. The author was taken to the home of Ekan Yasenjiang; where he and his son and daughter were working on presentation-grade knives with silver-fittings. The author bought one of their hunting knifes. He explains that all Yengisar knives bear the official number “525” on the blade; signifying the Yasenjiang Clan. On the other side of his hunting knife’s blade was the family name “Erkan” in Uyghur script; as is the custom. The handle of this knife was made of horn and the blade was slightly blued.
In the telling of the second story, the author informs the reader that no two Uyghur knives are the same; they are hand crafted. He sets three questions which he wants to answer about Yengisar knives: why are they special, why are they called Yengisar, and why is the craft dying out? Living in Ürümqi, he decided to first go to the International Grand Bazaar in Ürümqi to orient himself about the knives. The Grand Bazaar is a popular tourist center in the capital of Xinjiang. There the author came across a sea of knife-shop enclaves. All claimed to be handmade Yengisar knives of high quality. Feeling not much the wiser for the experience, his next step toward finding answers to his questions was a trip to Yengisar. “All around the Takalamakan Desert in southern Xinjiang, from Kuqa to Kashgar to Khotan (Hotan), families had perfected the skill of knife-making and had become known for their beautiful creations. Out of all these towns and villages, though, none were as well-known for their beauty and quality of their knives as Yengisar.” – Josh Summers
Yengisar is to be found about 70 km south of Kashgar. The author’s overwhelming impression of the village, upon entry, was similar to the impression of the author of the first story; a ghost-town. The shops looked deserted and locked. The years of proliferous knife-tourism seemed long passed. However, the author came across one knife-maker in front of his shop, working on a knife. The shop owner opened his shop filled with knifes all along the walls on display. The author engaged the man in conversation about the knives and the current knife-trade. “Mehmet shared with me that many of the knives we see at the tourist bazaars in Ürümqi and Kashgar – and even some on display in Yengisar – are no longer handmade in town. Most of the blades are now manufactured in factories in China with handles hastily put together by locals in Xinjiang.” – John Summers. At that point, the author asked to see the “real” Yengisar knives. Mehmet reached under the counter and brought forth a small stash of knives which were carefully bundled together in a cloth. Of those knives, the author chose a hunting knife for the price of RMB 175 (25 USD). This knife also bore the 525 trade mark of authenticity and the family name; and was made from re-cycled steel. The author was very pleased to not only have purchased the Yengisar knife, but, to have it actually delivered to his door. He had had his doubts about the mailing. He said he had to trust that the shop-keeper would keep his word and send the knife to him in Ürümqi by mail. He had no other guarantee. If Mehmet is any indication of the moral standards of the people of Yengisar, then Yengisar seems to be a very good place to buy an authentic Yengisar knife. From what both authors convey, buying an authentic knife is merely a matter of finding a knife-maker’s open-door and asking him to show the “real” knives.
The author of the second article has sufficiently answered two of the three questions he set out to investigate. The remaining question asked why the craft of knife-making was dying out; and, for that question he offers six separate answers. The reasons for the sharp decline of the knife-tourism to Yengisar are multiple causes; a combined cascading down of factors, which taken together, result in a single effect. 1.) During the past decade, there have been many knife attacks throughout China. 2.) On-going security concerns in Xinjiang. 3.) New regulations for the sale and transport of knives. 4.) Registration of personal knives based on length. 5.) Prohibition of the personal-carry custom. 6.) Chinese tourists are now limited to the purchase of only one knife and that knife must be shipped to their home address.
I now leave both authors and their stories behind me as I address these six reasons for the decline of knife-tourism. The reasons 3-4-5-6 are all consequences of reasons 1-2. The knife-attacks occurring in China have brought attention to the role of knives as weapons in the modern world of China. As such, the government has taken action to nationally regulate this weapon by restricting the sale, registration, and transportation of knives. The on-going security concerns in Xinjiang are particular to that region and the government of China has taken additional regulatory measures, effective in the province of Xinjiang. The Chinese government does not accept “traditional custom” as being a legitimate reason to tolerate people carrying knives in public places. The national laws of knife-control are applicable in this autonomous region; so, those laws are not to be considered as additional measures which only apply to the inhabitants of Xinjiang. The additional security measures taken in Ürümqi over the last decades are an effort to quell the racial tensions between the Uyghur, the Han Chinese and other non-indigenous races of the city; and as such, are very particular to the region. The government’s interference with other aspects of the Uyghur culture are not related to this discussion of the Uyghur knives.
This essay is titled “Behind Locked Doors”. My reason for choosing that expression has to do with placing the things we fear behind locked doors. In my youth, I grew up within a culture which did not place weapons behind locked doors. Locking guns and knives into cabinets, closets, and cases were not always legal requirements back then. But, times have changed and I think that has a lot to do with our present fear of
weapons. Granted, we may have good reason to fear weapons and we may have good reason to fear people who carry weapons. We may not trust people to handle weapons responsibly or may not trust people to refrain from using weapons for violence. So, as a society, we have chosen to regulate the sale, registration, and transportation of all manner of weapons. The laws are detailed and anyone found disregarding them faces the possibility of losing their property behind the locked doors of confiscated weapons. Do I consider this a threat to my cultural heritage; an invasion of my right to keep my cultural identity alive? No. I see it as an expression of the collective cultural reality within which I live. The collective culture feels the need to place the things it fears behind locked doors. What we lock away, tells us who we are individually and collectively, as well as what frightens us.
This brings me back to the beginning of this essay; to the two categories of dangerous things. Both categories are piles of things which actually cause death and harm. Yet, we react to those two piles quite differently. The things in one pile, we try to avoid; we place them behind either real or metaphorically locked doors. For the things in the other pile, we turn a blind eye to their dangers; we accept them and live with them on a daily basis. As individuals we can do what we want with these two categories. We can even place what we want in the piles we want them. When we do this collectively, we call it “culture”. Those cultures who collectively place knives in the second pile, see knives primarily as tools. Those cultures who place knives in the first pile, see knives primarily as weapons. And, the irony is, that both may be called “knife-cultures”; but, for very different reasons. In my mind, these two cultures will always have great difficulty getting along with each-other; simply because each has very little chance of ever understanding the other.