CHEN Bao–xing and Garé LeCOMPTE

A chart illustrating the points in the body used in massage, acupuncture, and moxibustion treatments.

Throughout China’s long history massage has often been used by Chinese as a conservative treatment for many ailments such as sprained joints and impaired circulation. Developed around the ancient Chinese principles of yin and yang and the concept of qi, or life force, therapeutic massage remains a popular medical technique today.

Archaeological studies have shown that as early as 2700 BCE the Chinese in the Huang (Yellow) River Valley were using massage for healing purposes. During the period of Warring States (475–221 BCE), Bian Que, a legendary physician, was said to have used massage and acupuncture successfully to treat a patient suffering from shock. Today massage therapy is widely used as an alternative to surgical procedures and chemical treatment for a number of aliments and medical conditions.

The principles of massage developed alongside the basic principles of traditional Chinese medicine. The first principle is the theory of yin and yang. Simply stated, the concept of yin and yang in medicine accepts that the organs of the body are interrelated and that illness is caused by an imbalance in yin and yang, opposite yet complementary influences. The second basic principle is the belief in the flow of qi (vital energy, or life force) through certain channels of the body and through the collaterals, small blood vessels that the body develops and which can bypass a blockage in a larger blood vessel. In accord with these beliefs, massage is thought to not only heal an injury at one particular location but also influence the entire body or parts of the body through encouraging energy to flow through the channels and collaterals that regulate the balance of yin and yang. Massage, then, is used to stimulate circulation, heal injuries, and treat disease.

Techniques in Chinese massage include rubbing, stroking, kneading, and tapping with the hands as well as with the healer’s arm and elbow on the patient’s body and extremities. The effect of manipulation through massage is directly related to the technique used—mild or powerful manipulations, vigorous or soft performance, quick or slow frequency—thus directing the flow of qi.

Therapeutic massage is used in China as a conservative treatment for orthopedic disorders such as tight shoulder muscles, lumbago, protrusion of a spinal disc, and joint sprains. Chinese orthopedic surgeons do not consider therapeutic massage and surgical treatment as opposites, but as complementary treatments. Therapeutic massage, using only the doctor’s hands, relieves the patient’s pain and avoids the side effects of chemical agents, such as repeated local injections of steroids. It can also frequently eliminate the side effects of unnecessary surgical procedures. In most Chinese hospitals today, a section of massage treatment is often affiliated with the department of physical therapy.

Further Reading

Gulling, A. (1988). Essentials of tuinaology: Chinese medical massage and manipulation. Hilo, HI: Cao’s Fire Dragon.

Feng, T. (1983). Treatment of soft tissue injury with traditional Chinese and western medicine. Beijing: People’s Medical Publishing House.

Zhang, E. (1990). Chinese acupuncture and moxibustion. Shanghai: Publishing House of the Shanghai College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Source: Chen, Bao–xing, & LeCompte, Garé. (2009). Massage. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1419–1420. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Pebble massage sandals from Dalian, China. PHOTO BY CORY DOCTOROW.

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