Fire-Cupping & Guasha for Dummies

A Tianjin bathhouse introduction to two popular traditional Chinese therapies.

I’d wanted to visit a local Tianjin bathhouse ever since getting to peek inside one that was located in some of Tianjin’s doomed hutongs. Watching the Chinese movie Shower gave me a glimpse of the charm and community these places provide in some older Chinese neighbourhoods. Two recent bathhouse trips with friends were the perfect opportunity try out two different forms of popular Chinese therapy: fire-cupping (拔火罐; báhuǒguànr) on the first trip and guāshā (刮痧) on the second.

Fire-cupping — 拔火罐儿 — bá huǒ guànr

It’s not every day that you return home looking like you’ve just lost a wrestling match with a giant octopus, but being pinned on your stomach by a sucker-wielding octopod is about what fire-cupping feels like. In the simplest terms, fire-cupping involves getting a bunch of really big, round, dark hickeys all over your back, or stomach, or wherever you want to get them. It doesn’t really hurt, and it’s good for you – kind of it like a massage, only in reverse.

Octopus Wrestling
After getting dizzy from soaking in the hot bathhouse pools for too long, we shower, dry off, and put on some shorts and shirts provided by the change room attendants. They lead us into a large, dimly lit room containing dozens of booths of two beds each. Some older middle-aged men are sleeping, some are smoking and watching T.V., and one or two others are getting foot massages from pretty young ladies.

A shīfu (师傅) arrives at our booth with a plastic tub full of what look to me like glass candle holders. I take off my shirt and lay down on my stomach. With a large flaming matchstick in one hand, the shīfu begins applying the glass cups to my back by briefly sticking the flame up inside the cup before quickly pressing the rim down onto my back. I can’t feel any heat, but one second of flame is enough to change the air pressure inside the cup and create strong suction against my skin. It takes him less than two minutes to apply them all. He says he’ll be back in a few minutes and leaves me lying there with my bulging skin turning various shades of purple under each of the seventeen glass cups. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s an odd, strong sensation.

Ten minutes later he comes back and begins pulling the cups off one at a time by sticking his finger under the rims to break the suction. They come off with a shklop! and leave seventeen big puffy red welts behind. Before letting me go he throws a blanket over my back and gives me a quick massage. The red dots aren’t sore; it feels like having a very slight sunburn but it’s not uncomfortable to put on a shirt or lean back in a chair. The entire procedure takes less than twenty minutes.

Guasha —刮痧 — guā shā

Despite what it looks like, guāshā doesn’t have too much in common with road rash. It can be a little more painful than fire-cupping, depending on hard or light you ask the shīfu to work, and people’s experiences range from comfortable to somewhat painful. Guāshā might be literally translated “to scrape fever.”

Playing Zebra
It’s our second trip to the Same Fortune Shared Happiness Bathing Garden (同福浴園 – across the road from the Sheraton Hotel on 紫金山路) and two of us are going to try guāshā. When the shÄ«fu tells me and a Chinese friend that it’s our turn, we step out of the pool toward two of the three plastic tables lined up in the space between the hot pools along one wall and the showers along the opposite.

My table has just been vacated by an older middle-aged man who’d received a full-body soap down. The shīfu spreads a large sheet of thin plastic over the table and tells me to lay down on my stomach. I’m a little more nervous about getting guāshā’d than I was about getting fire-cupped because I’d heard guāshā can hurt -– that, and laying around naked on a table in a public place isn’t something I do every weekend.

The shīfu takes my dish-towel-sized Chinese towel (provided by the bathhouse) and wipes down my back before spreading oil on it. He doesn’t need the towel while he’s scraping so he wads it up and drops it on my butt, I guess for convenience. Then he starts repeatedly scraping lines into my skin; each line gets maybe ten or more strokes. I can’t see what he’s using to scrape; there are rounded instruments made for this purpose, sometimes polished buffalo horn, a soup spoon, or even old-style Chinese coins with the square holes in the middle. “Scrape” is actually too strong a verb for what he’s doing because he’s not breaking the skin or even rubbing it raw; there’s no scabbing. Still, glancing over at my friend on the table beside me I can see that it takes less than a minute for angry red lines to start appearing on his back.

It’s not uncomfortable except for the last two or three strokes on each line; those burn a little and I’m glad each time he moves to a new spot and starts a new line. After he’s made five stripes down along the length of my spine and a row of eight stripes along each set of ribs, he gives me a quick soapdown head-to-toe with my now soapy towel. Then he rinses me off with a bucket. The entire procedure only takes ten or fifteen minutes. After evaluating the colour of my guāshā stripes, he decides he’s not impressed with the state of my health and suggests I get fire-cupped as well. That night I return home both striped and dotted.

‘Healthiness’ with Chinese characteristics

Despite what it looks like in the photos, fire-cupping marks aren’t the same thing as a bruise, and they don’t hurt like a bruise. A doctor friend explains the difference:

When you get a bruise it is usually from some type of traumatic impact which has shredded the vessels and allowed blood to leak into the surrounding tissues. The blood can go to different layers of the skin and when it gets near the surface its purple color can be seen. That is why, depending on the injury, you don’t see a bruise till it’s starting to be spread out and taken away by the body a few days later. In contrast Cupping brings the blood up right away to the surface where the body easily breaks it down. If any damage is done to the tissues it is usually surface only, and not deeper. This is actually one of the beneficial effect of Cupping as part of its design is to pull out the stuck blood that may be left in a muscle which is not in a relaxed state (contracted, knotted, stiff, etc.) Its like wicked hickey designed to get the old, stuck blood out of the muscles.

Fire-cupping leaves marks because the suction causes the capillaries (minute blood vessels) to burst under the skin, but unlike a bruise there’s been no blunt trauma done to the tissues or nerve endings. The red discolouration caused by guāshā is also the result of blood from burst capillaries under the skin. In traditional Chinese medicine, moving the blood in this way can be a very good thing; hickeys are healthy.

Part of the idea behind treatments like fire-cuppping and guāshā is that there is a lining or layer in the body, which includes the connective tissues. Qi (something like ‘vital energy,’ but not exactly), blood, and other important substances need to flow and circulate through this layer so that deeper parts of the body, like internal organs, are properly connected with the rest of the body. Proper flow of these things allows the different parts of the body to live in proper relationship and balance with one another and for organs receive the nutrients they need and the immune system to be invigorated. Health problems develop when blood becomes congested and stagnant in this layer because this hinders the circulation of qi, blood, and other fluids and nutrients, thereby preventing the different areas of the body from properly relating to one another. This throws the body out of balance and can result in a myriad of health problems. Guāshā and fire-cupping pull this stagnant blood up closer to the surface, allowing qi, blood, fluids, and nutrients to begin circulating properly throughout the tissues and allowing the stagnant blood to be properly reabsorbed.

Regardless of how poorly I understand the basics of traditional Chinese healthiness, an evening at the neighbourhood bathhouse after dinner with a little fire-cupping or guāshā is a fun and relaxing way to spend time with a few good friends. I’ll be back for more!

(Haha – I really hope I didn’t totally mess up the Chinese medicine section, since this is one of the published pieces. Too late now! :D )

Other Chinese bathhouse and Chinese medicine-related posts:

5 thoughts on “Fire-Cupping & Guasha for Dummies”

  1. I knew it was only a matter of time… ;)

    I’m not so sure that describing such activities in terms of their relevance to Chinese medicine is the kind of thing that most wives would get too excited about, but hey, don’t let me stop you!

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