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Chinese Massage Can be Elicit and it Can be Painful

With Chinese cupping in the news thanks to the strange circular black and blue marks on Michael Phelps and other US swimmers, I thought I’d share my own experience with the procedure. My The Expat Life column from WSJ.com from almost a decade ago:

Massage in China is plentiful and fairly cheap — anywhere from $10 to $20 for a 60- to 90-minute, Western-style oil massage. It costs less for a traditional Chinese massage, where you keep all your clothes on, have a sheet placed over you and get manipulated in ways that aren’t necessarily relaxing but can be quite beneficial. Foot massages are popular as well, especially among women.

There are also many massage joints that are actually fronts for brothels, but luckily they are generally easy to pick out. One solid clue is an attractive young woman in a white leather miniskirt running out of a storefront, grabbing you by the arm and saying, “You need very relax massage!” I have actually had to pry their hands off, while firmly saying, “bu yao” (don’t want) and moving on.

I have a persistent ache in my left shoulder. It’s usually dull and only mildly bothersome, but every once in a while it flares up badly and seems to lock me up from my neck to my elbow. One such day a while back, I was sitting in a Starbucks pecking on my laptop, increasingly distracted by the tightening on my left side. Realizing I wasn’t going to get much work done, I decided to try to work the kink out at the traditional Chinese massage place down the block, which I knew to be both legit and first-rate. On my sole previous visit, the masseuse immediately found my sore spot, put her finger on it and said, “Pain.”

I was pleased when the same woman appeared. I said I wanted an oil massage, focused almost exclusively on my left shoulder. I used my usual blend of Chinese and charades and hoped that she understood. Lying face down on the massage table, I felt pleased with my communication skills as she dug into my left upper back, hitting the right spot and staying there for a good long time.

I could feel the knot opening up and dissipating when she suddenly stopped and poured extra oil on my shoulder. I then felt her put a hard and warm object on my back, and imagined she was using a device to exert extra pressure. Then she started moving the thing up and down the scapula. It felt great at first, but as she continued to move, the oil seemed to dry up and the pressure intensified to the point of pain and then beyond.

I yelped and craned my head backward, trying to see what was going on. She said something I didn’t understand and turned toward a table behind her. I still felt an intense pinching and pulling on my left shoulder as she turned back to me holding a glass jar in her hands, leaning over to place it on the right side. I yelped and groaned but she just shoved my head back down, saying something that I took to be, “It will be good.”

After having slid the jar along my left shoulder blade for quite a while, with increasing pain, she removed it, then put it back down about half way up the shoulder. I now had jars on each side, which remained in place while the masseuse worked my lower back. It hurt. A lot. Imagine two high-suction vacuum cleaners clamped onto your back. I just lay there and groaned. I’m still not sure if my silent submission means I am a very strong man or a very weak one.

When my hour was up, she removed all the jars and washed my back with hot towels. I was dazed and stiff, and unable to determine how my normal shoulder ache felt — it was replaced by a whole-back soreness.

That night, I related this tale to my wife and asked if I had any marks on my back. I pulled my shirt up and she screamed. I ran into the bathroom, craned my head toward the mirror behind me and took in a rather grotesque sight — my entire left shoulder was black and blue, while the right side bore a perfect black and blue circle.

“What did they do to you?” Rebecca asked with alarm.

“I’m not really sure,” I meekly confessed. “Something with heated jars.”

The next day I showed a friend my back and learned that I had “been cupped.” Googling “massage cupping,” I stumbled onto a wealth of information, largely written in a New Age patois that I found impossible to penetrate. Seeking enlightenment, I called Dr. Barry Disch, a Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor at Beijing’s United Family Hospital, who was one of the first Westerners accredited to practice acupuncture in Beijing.

“Cupping is very popular here,” said Dr. Disch. “I am not a big believer, because I think you can use acupuncture and some massage techniques and get the same results without ugly octopus-like bruises. But I don’t think it does any harm and some people really believe it.”

Okay, but what exactly is actually happening? And what is supposed to happen? I looked on www.massagecupping.com and it said something about “draining fluids and toxins” and “lifting connective tissues,” but it sounded like mumbo jumbo.

“Basically, they are using suction to take the evil chi out of your surface channels,” Dr. Disch said. “In scientific terms, it’s hard to say what is happening. You are breaking some vessels and creating circulation and bruising and that may have some anti-inflammatory effects.”

So the bruise is supposed to be a good thing?

“Basically, yes. It’s a very common belief in Chinese medicine that bruising proves that you had some kind of pathogen there.”

This was days later and already faded.

To me, that sounded dangerously like the old practice of determining whether or not someone was a witch by pushing them underwater — if they drowned their name was cleared but their life was lost. I didn’t really need to have my shoulder beaten to a pulp to know there was something wrong with it.

For about two days, I felt like someone had beaten my back with a baseball bat. When that pain receded, I suddenly realized that the shoulder was largely ache-free. It was a strange and welcome sensation, but I hesitated to credit the cupping because I thought perhaps I was merely relieved to have the bruising pain recede. Within a day or two, everything was back to normal, a mild ache returning to its rightful perch in my left shoulder.

I have considered going back for another session, but can’t quite bring myself to do it. As shocking as it was to be cupped out of the blue, I find it impossible to walk in fully aware of what’s to come. At least I don’t have to fend off any cuppers on the street.

1 reply
  1. Michael Ratt
    Michael Ratt says:

    Interesting article/post.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your stuff since your first Allmans articles way back when.

    Uh, I’m going to be typically Canadian and give a pre-apology for this, but, considering My wife is a literary editor, and I’m kind of picky about the written word,
    I can’t help myself…


    I think you meant ‘illicit’, as in ‘illegal’.


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