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Self-Help: Cupping

Feeling low? A bit mopey and blue? Have that toxic gunk vacuumed right out of your flesh, that will sort you out...


From the SmSh Vault: This article first appeared on SmartShangai on Jan 2, 2014. We're rescuing it from the archives and chucking it back into the rotation because we feel you might find the information useful and relevant. We've re-checked and confirmed the logistical details contained herein. From the SmSh vaults, this one's aged like fine wine...

In an attempt to reverse the downward spiral of your mental and physical wellbeing, in these Self-Help articles we bring you suggestions of classes, sporty things, team events, volunteering and educational stuff that might just pull you out of that boozy tail-spin.

Cupping is a form of acupuncture that uses a vacuum inside a cup to lightly pull up the skin and the superficial muscle layer. The technique is meant to cause the body to release toxins and clear blockages, and said to get rid of headaches, relieve respiratory conditions and lower blood pressure.

The side-effect of cupping: big, purple and sometimes strangely symmetrical bruises that make you look like you've been beaten with a bar of soap wrapped in a towel. I have to admit that I never quite understood why someone would subject themselves to something they know would give them marks that make them look like they’re infected with something. But then I was hit by a cold that all the vitamin C tablets in Shanghai couldn’t cure.

Hoping to cut it off before it developed into a full-on body ache, I decided to give cupping a try. I headed over to Dagu Lu and walked into the first of many spas that line that street. Congen Massage has babbling little water fountains lining the stairs and tiny, dimly lit rooms that are no bigger than broom closets but, to give the place credit, it has extremely friendly staff who were very accommodating.

What you need

Nothing. You’ll be asked to take your top off for the duration of it. Wouldn’t suggest wearing something see-through or low-cut at the back, unless you’re planning on showing off your purple bruises when they appear a couple of hours later.

Who goes in for this

Mostly Chinese men and women who are looking to cure or relieve a range of ailments.

What happens

The massage parlor has a list of what they offer propped up right on their reception table, so either point to where it says “cupping” if the list is in English, or ask for baguan. I’ve read about unsuspecting people getting cupping and scraping done at the same time, which can be really painful, so if you’re not up for that it’s worth specifying that you don’t want guasha. Choose between a three-star or five-star practitioner (seriously, what do you call someone that does cupping? A massage therapist? A cupper?) and you’ll be led up to a small, dimly lit room to wait until your therapist comes in with the cups and towels.

As soon as you’ve taken off your top and lain down on the massage table, the cupping lady starts placing cups on your back. Traditionally, fire is used to create a vacuum inside the cup, but nowadays most places have cups with a pump system. Apparently, there are five meridian lines on the back, and the cups are placed along these to cure maladies and relax one's qi. They’re placed along these channels to help open up the paths through which energy flows to tissues and organs in the body. Not quite how that works, exactly. It kind of felt like she was just plopping them down without any sort of method, and there was definitely no consultation of any ancient-looking back-chart. Maybe that’s because I had a five-star therapist and she was just super experienced. Or maybe I just have a very outdated idea of how traditional Chinese medicine is practiced.

Once all the cups are in place, the cupping lady drapes a towel over your back and transforms into a head-and-neck massage therapist and, if you speak some Chinese, advice-giver on how to take care of yourself. Mine gave me a mild scolding about not eating at proper times during the day and repeated the Chinese cure-all: drink more hot water. I wouldn’t say it’s a relaxing experience being cupped, seeing as the cups are pulling on your back and the therapist keeps cranking up the cup pressure to ensure all the toxins are released. But it’s also not extremely uncomfortable or very painful. Not quite sure whether it usually hurts more and she just took pity on me for being a young laowai living alone in Shanghai without her parents (she exclaimed her motherly concern several times while soothingly massaging my head).

After 15 minutes or so, the cups are removed. A quick back rub follows and then you’re free to get dressed and go.

How much of your life will this take up

The actual cupping takes around 20 minutes; about five to put on the cups and then fifteen while they sit and work their magic.

How much does it cost

It depends on where you go. At Congen it’s 60rmb for a three-star practitioner, 85rmb for a five-star. There are places further down the street that do it for 180rmb.


It’s a relatively gentle form of traditional Chinese medicine, so for those wanting to dabble in this field it’s a nice introduction. All of the staff at Congen are also extremely friendly and more than happy to answer any questions you might have. Rad bruises that make you feel like action man. The possibility that this is doing something good for your health.


Big bruises that make you look like a victim of spousal abuse. They’re big and purple and can stay for up to two weeks. They’re not really visible right after the cupping is done, but they get pretty dark a few hours later. Apparently, the darker they get, the more toxins you were holding in your body. Kind of just looks like you’ve been tortured, or caught a weird skin disease. I read that they weren’t supposed to be sore when it’s done properly, but mine were sensitive for two days after. The cold I went in to cure unfortunately also stayed with me for another week...


Find Congen massage here and a bunch of other spas that will cup the shit out of you here.



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  • aelephant

    For a thorough debunking, see

    They even have a Chinese version at

  • Unverified User

    You forgot to mention that you can't take a shower for 7-8 hours post cupping

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