Nationwide, you won’t fail to notice a multitude of shopfronts and large complexes offering natural therapies, ranging from ubiquitous foot and body massages to curious treatments you’ve probably never heard of, let alone experienced.
The focus of this article is on the authentic variety you can find in Chongqing, and I will explain the different treatments one by one.
Reflexology – Foot and body massage 足疗和全身按摩
This is the most commonly found therapy in Chongqing, but prices and quality varies drastically from place to place. There are large complexes that offer sumptuous surroundings whilst pampering you with fine teas and platters of tasty snacks at a premium. At the same time, you can stumble across simple tiny shopfronts with two or three sofa beds that can offer high quality reflex massages at a bargain price.
In addition to these, there are also many places run by blind masseurs who are well practised, and are not susceptible to distraction by television screens and mobile phones. The characters for a blind massage centre is 盲人按摩 (Mang ren an mo), and you will find them in all districts if you look hard enough.
The basic premise is that every part of the body is linked through energy channels called ‘jing luo经络’ to specific areas not only of the foot, but also through acupuncture points 穴位 (Xue wei) all over the body. The idea is that when a specific reflex point is stimulated through massaging, condensed metabolic waste associated with the organ is released and eventually eliminated from the body. A good masseur will encourage you to drink plenty of water during the massage to help this process.
When you choose a foot massage, they will first prepare a foot bath with hot water and ask you to soak your feet for around ten minutes. During this time, they may leave you in peace, or give you a neck, shoulder and back massage to help you relax. This depends on the individual place and price you choose.
The foot massage itself usually takes around an hour. In the early stages, the masseur will ask whether the pressure is comfortable for you by asking 力度合适吗 (li du he shi ma). You can ask for it be lighter by saying ‘轻一点 qing yi dian,’ heavier by ‘重一点 zhong yidian.’ It’s fine is just ‘没问题 mei wen ti,’ no problem.
There are some well practised masseurs who can add unbelievable pressure and have you squirm in pain. Generally, a higher level of pressure will make the treatment more effective, but they will pay attention to your reactions and ask if you’re comfortable.
At the end, they will tell you the massage is over, cover your feet up with a towel and say goodbye. Each worker is given a number, and you may ask for the same masseur next time by telling this to reception.
The body massage is generally what you would expect. You first lie on your front with your face set in a small circular hole at the top. Once your back is all done, the masseur will tell you to roll over, and the front of your body will be done.
Final word of warning
Standards of training are usually good, but there are a few coyboys employed who are new to the industry, and I strongly suggest you ask for a recommendation from somebody you trust before choosing an establishment, especially if you can’t communicate in Chinese.
Personally, I once had my left hand yanked too strongly during the relaxation stage, and I could barely flex my wrist for six months. A Slovakian woman I once knew here told me she needed hospital treatment on a shoulder that was injured by an overzealous masseur.
This doesn’t happen often, but if a massge pulls gently twice on your wrist or arm, the third one is usually going to be more forceful. You can tell the masseur not to do this by saying ‘不要 bu yao.’
This treatment is applied by preparing a cigar like tube of medicinal herbs that are lit at one end and held over certain acupuncture points of your head, chest or back. The heat emitted from burning the herbs is said to have a therapeutic effect when placed close to such points on your skin.
In my experience, a massage clinic will recommend moxibustion for persistent ailments like coughs and colds. Though I can’t vouch for this scientifically, I have found this useful in the past.
You will find the heat quite intense, so you can ask for the tube to be held further away by just saying it’s too hot, 太热了 (tai re le).
My biggest complaint about moxibustion is by far the smoke. Unless the clinic is particularly well ventilated, your clothes will smell strongly of burnt herbage. It’s nowhere near as unpleasant as cigarette smoke, but I’ve always avoided this by wearing a set of clothes I’m not fussed about having fumigated. You certainly don’t want to choose this treatment when out in an Armani suit or something.
Cupping 拔罐 (Ba guan)
Cupping is a treatment done by creating a vacuum inside class or plastic cups that are placed on your back for around 15 minutes, sucking up your skin and opening your pores for toxins to seep out. You will usually be advised not to shower for a few hours and cover up so that toxins continue to come out, but also to avoid contact with cold winter air寒气 (han qi) that could cause illness.
You normally remove your top and lie on your front. Massage oils are rubbed onto your back, and the cupping process begins. Glass cups are placed by lighting an alcohol soaked gauze on a stick, that is quickly extended into the hollow part of the cup and then put on your back. The mini vacuum will make the cup stick to your back.
Plastic cups usually have a pocket at the top that is squeezed to make a vacuum, but it doesn’t really matter which way the procedure is performed.
Possible discomfort might come from tightness caused by the suction, but this wears off quickly. Also, you might find the glass feels either very cold, ot very hot if the masseur wasn’t attentive with the flame.
After a quarter of an hour, the cups are pulled off, leaving red spots over your back that take a few days to disappear. These might seem shocking at first to foreigners who are not familiar with the treatment, but the locals will all know at once, so you needn’t feel self conscious about it.
Generally, the redder the spot left over, the more toxins are concentrated in that area.
The philosophy behind spooning is similar to cupping, but the method is different. Cupping and spooning are often performed together.
Instead of using a vacuum to open pores, the masseur takes a smooth plastic object, and scrapes it along the skin of your back, forcing open the pores and again leaving a line of red marks on your skin which take a few days to clear up.
This has to be done quite forceably, so you might feel some pain or discomfort during the process. However, I have never heard or experienced any harm being caused by spooning.
A large number of establishments will offer small treatments like ear cleaning采耳 (cai er), which can be quite pleasurable and leave your ears feeling spotless.
For a small charge, a masseur might ask whether you want your nails cut修脚 (xiu jiao), in which case he or she does a miner impression by putting on a headband with a light in the middle, and cuts your nails with a sharp chisel like tool rather than scissors or clippers.
I’m throwing this one in because I’ve actually tried this before in Chongqing on a few occasions. However, you will need to search high and low to find somewhere that offers this therapy.
This method comes in two forms that I will explain. The basic premise behind both is that vacuous air under the fire will force toxins to permeate the skin and gather on the surface where they can be simply washed away.
As long as it is performed by a trained therapist, you shouldn’t come to any harm or feel discomfort.
The most common method used in clinics is for the patient to lie down on his back, and the therapist places multiple layers of towels on his abdomen, the towel touching the skin is moistened with water. Once everything is in place, alcohol is poured in the centre of the top towels and set light to. Once the flame begins to die down, it is extinguished, and the process is repeated a number of times.
A second alternative method wife’s relatives use occaisonally is called 抽风 (chou feng), a term I still haven’t thought out an apt English translation for.
Basically, you take a short bamboo tube, and wrap it up with brown paper smeared with wax, leaving a few inches of space at the bottom to avoid the fire reaching the skin. The therapist lights the paper and holds down the tube firmly on your navel. Once the paper has nearly burnt down to the bottom, it is dumped into a bowl of water, and the tube is removed to reveal a navel cavity full of yellow toxins that you can pick out and wash away.
Again, I can’t vouch for the therapeutic effects scientifically, but it’s an interesting and novel experience for those who are open to alternative treatments.
Interestingly, this is the most difficult treatment to find in Chongqing. Almost nowhere in the massage business will offer this, and you will have to find a licensed practitioner at a hospital based on Chinese medicine 中医院 (Zhong yi yuan).
In all my years in China, I am yet to find a clinic prescribing acupuncture, but I will try it someday and update this post.