China is well-known for its alternative medical treatments. Despite being used for thousands of years in the East, it doesn’t prevent the average Westerner viewing such behavior with a sense of wonder and occasional condescension: ‘So, let me get this straight…you drink snake liquor to… cure your arthritis?’
While many Chinese people I have met seem to swear by such alternative methods, I wasn’t particularly up for digesting snakes, sea horses and the like. One friend, however, recently asked if I was willing to try a full-body Chinese massage, and seeing as it was a particularly uneventful Sunday evening, I happily obliged.
During the massage - while the masseuse lady was rather comfortably walking along my back - she asked if I would like to try 拔罐 (bá guàn). At first I had no idea what she was talking about, so naturally I asked her to repeat. Finally, she added another word to her question in an attempt to make me register her meaning, and as Chinese can be made easier with a little context I managed to figure out what she had said. The word she had added was火 (huǒ), and being in an environment where various treatments were on offer, I realized the practice she was offering could only be one thing: fire cupping.
Fire cupping is an ancient process which involves a local suction created (usually) on the back. Practitioners believe it mobilizes blood flow, promotes healing, and treats respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis and even the common cold.
In all honesty, I had my doubts; Admittedly, I don’t know much about Chinese medicine, or any medicine at all for that matter, and I wasn’t convinced that this would do me any good. Nevertheless, I’d heard from one of my Chinese teachers at That’s Mandarin that it was a popular treatment amongst the Chinese, and I’m almost always up for a new experience.
As the full-body massage came to a close, I was quite looking forward to this bizarre, exotic practice of having jars placed along my back to cause a suction so powerful I would be left bruised for several days. The masseuse went out to gather her things and re-entered the room rolling a small, squeaky trolley with a number of fist-sized jars stacked on both shelves. I must admit I was quite excited. After all, it was moments like this when I remember just how far I am from home, and how the act of placing fire filled jars on your back is quite different from the average Sunday night in rainy England.
She first asked me to lie on my back and explained that she would start the process on my legs. Quickly she dabbed the small pots across my calves in a swift swiping motion, as if to test my endurance in some way. It felt nice at first, until she planted one firmly onto the side of my calf and just left it there, allowing me to see the skin rising up like a cake in an oven. It was this point that I realized just how uncomfortable this would be, and my excitement started to decline.
She removed the jar after 3 minutes and I took a closer look at my leg. It wasn’t quite as bruised as I expected it to be, but it certainly did ache. Next she instructed me to lie on my front. As she began placing the jars on my back, I asked how long it would take. ‘Oh, maybe 15 minutes or so. Don’t worry,’ she reassured ‘you’ll be ok’. That’s when the fun began - fun for my friend sitting next to me of course.
The first cup went on and it felt like the skin was being pinched and twisted. While I let her know the lack of comfort I was feeling, she asked if it was too painful and if I would like it to be removed. Obviously I had paid for the treatment so I had to go through with it. What’s more, I didn’t want to come across as a fragile weakling either, so I did what any normal Brit would do: kept calm and carried on.
I now asked again, just for my own reassurance, if I had heard right the first time - that the process would last a full 15 minutes. ‘Well, normally it is 15 minutes’, she said with a laugh, ‘but your skin has too much moisture, so I think 5 minutes should be enough’. It was around the 4 minute mark that my friend laying down on the bed beside me let out a huge laugh and exclaimed how far my skin had risen inside the jars. ‘It looks….awful,’ he stated.
As I became more and more worried that my delicate, over-moist skin would be damaged for life, the masseuse returned and peeled off the jars one by one. Looking back, this was perhaps the best part of the treatment.
I asked if they could take a photo of my new back, and they kindly agreed. My friend was right: it did look awful. As I carefully slid my clothes back on, the lumps were plainly visible and protruded out of my shirt. ‘Don’t shower tonight’ they finally warned, and I explained that I wouldn’t be showering any time soon.
Finally we got back and I decided to sleep. It was impossible to lie on my back and I spent the whole night going from front to side.
With it now being a week since my treatment, the red circles have finally gone, but as for the health effects, I really don’t notice any difference. One thing I will say is that if you are here in China and have the opportunity go for fire cupping therapy with a friend, you should seize it. Not only may you never get another chance to do it, but bear in mind that it may be much less painful for you than it was for me (this has nothing to do with me being a weakling. It’s just the excess moisture…*ahem*).
Additionally, it was extremely entertaining for my friend when they slapped the jars on my back, but even funnier when it was his turn and I got to witness him getting a taste of his own Chinese medicine.
All in all, the treatment didn’t leave me feeling particularly fresh, healed or invigorated, but instead gave me a sore, unsightly back. It was certainly a worthwhile experience though, and I guess the only thing left for me to try is acupuncture. But then again, maybe not…