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Inside Job: cupping practitioner

Frank Hersey tests his skills as a flame-wielding practitioner of cupping

Ever noticed perfectly circular bruises on the backs of some, peeping out above the neckline of their tops? Those bruises are the beautifully satisfying results of ‘cupping’, or bahuoguan ( 拔火罐). And yes, that’s ‘ huo ’ as in fire.


As a health and safety-free zone, Inside Job is a great platform for mixing naked flames and naked flesh, so I found a very helpful and patient Chinese medicine practitioner, Mr Ma, in a clinic near the Beijing First Hospital of the University of Chinese Medicine, and a very patient patient – Time Out intern Mac Goodspeed.


The general principle of the treatment is heating the air inside a glass jar, causing it to expand. It also lowers the oxygen level and increases the carbon dioxide level. Then the jar is quickly placed on the patient’s back. The rim forms a seal on the skin and as the air cools it creates a vacuum, sucking the skin up into the jar. It’s generally used as a TCM cure for respiratory illnesses, poor circulation and relaxation.


Mr Ma explains its use for anything except where the skin is broken or ulcerated. ‘It can dispel wind (qu feng, 祛风), cold (qu han, 祛寒), blood stasis (qu yu, 祛瘀) and many other things.’ We quickly establish that any ‘wind’ that might be dispelled is not the English sense of the word, but the ‘pathogenic wind’ of TCM, which is more in the rheumatoid arena.


cupping body 3


We’re dealing with a trolley full of Victorian-looking glass jars, tongs, cotton wadding, a bottle of 95-percent ethanol and a lighter. What could possibly go wrong?


Mac strips to the waist and lies face down on the bed. Mr Ma wipes the sweat off Mac’s back with some toilet paper. He then takes the wadding in the forceps, dips it in alcohol and lights it. A ten-inch flame leaps up as he takes the first jar. My own confidence drops, proportionate with the flame. The blank canvas of Mac’s back suddenly looks very fragile.


Mr Ma circles the rim of the jar through the flame and pushes the burning wadding into the jar for a second. Next he presses the rim onto the heel of his hand that’s holding the tongs to test the temperature, before planting it down on Mac’s back, neatly along the top of his shoulder blade. The whole movement takes less than five seconds.


It’s then my turn. I pick up the tongs with their freshly refuelled wadding and light it. Now with greasy trotters for hands I pick up a jar and copy Mr Ma.


‘That’s going to burn yourself as well as the patient,’ Mr Ma calmly points out.


I put the jar back down on the trolley to cool and try again. Better, but when I put it down on my victim it turns out it hadn’t been hot enough. Eventually we get ten jars on his back, enough for the standard treatment rather than more curative formations of jars, and I carefully cover his back with a towel so I don’t ‘cause any wind’.


cupping body 2


We leave Mac lying there for a few more minutes. A first-timer usually does it for five to ten minutes, with frequent users going for a full fifteen. When I pull back the towel, his flesh is well and truly sucked up into those jars, with different colours of bruising already forming.


Removing the jars also takes some technique. You can’t just pop them off, it turns out. Although Mr Ma shows me the technique, it must be by crazy coincidence that the jars I try to remove are stuck much, much more firmly. I eventually get the knack of pushing my thumb under the edge, breaking the seal with a satisfying sucking of air and accompanying silly noise.


cupping body 1


Once all the limpets are off, we survey the results (damage). ‘He’s okay,’ reassures Mr Ma. ‘Just these bottom two jars over his waist show that Mac is not sitting properly or not moving his hips correctly when exercising.’


‘I feel amazing!’ is Mac’s verdict. ‘When the jars were on I could feel that those bottom two jars were a bit different.’


A happy customer indeed. The treatment would normally cost 80RMB, but I only charge 75RMB, given that Mac’s an intern. The great thing is you don’t actually have to have any health issues to be fixed. It’s generally ‘good for you’ and can even show up health issues you’re not sure about, apparently. What’ve you got to lose?


Beijing Baoyuantang Zhongyi Zhensuo 1 Haiyuncang Hutong, Dongzhimen, Dongcheng district 东城区海运仓胡 同1号北京保元堂中医诊所 (8402 8169); open 8am-8pm Mon-Sun.

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