A touch better: blind masseurs

Do blind people give better massages?

Li Yuan (left) teaches massage techniques to a blind student. Photo by Chen Chao
If you’ve spent time wandering the streets of Beijing you’ve almost certainly walked past a blind-massage parlour. Look carefully and you’ll notice signs for them –‘盲人按摩’ (mangren anmo) –on every other street block in some areas.

But it wasn’t always this way. Although blind massage has a long history in China (the first blind masseur is said to be the 8th-century Buddhist monk Jianzhen, who practised the treatment after losing his sight during old age), it was only in the late 1990s that blind massage clinics began to proliferate in the capital.

Beijing Massage Hospital began to offer massage courses for blind people in 1958, but it was not until 1996, when the Chinese Massage Association of Blind Practitioners was established, that professional training became widely offered. From 2006, a government initiative under the auspices of the China Disabled Persons’ Federation saw the number of clinics and training facilities soar, and today there are estimated to be more than 100,000 blind massage therapists across the country.

‘In principle, blind massage does not work any differently from other TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) massages,’ says Li Yuan, head of the vocational education department of Beijing School for the Blind, where 100 students are currently training to be blind masseurs.

‘It applies the same treatment system: therapists need to have a thorough knowledge of the whole of the human body, its channels and pressure points; they need to know how to knead, push and pull in order to manipulate it. With this treatment they can help ease muscle, tendon and ligament problems, and also treat more complex illnesses.’

The key difference with blind massage, says Li Yuan, is not in the treatment method, but in the person doing it. ‘Giving a good massage is dependent on a person’s tactile sensitivity. Obviously, blind people have a strong advantage in this and so they have a good chance of finding employment.’ In fact, today, massage therapy is one of the principle avenues of employment for China’s visually impaired.

But with the growing legions of professional blind therapists are a worrying number of parlours with dubious credentials – places where the masseurs have had little-to-no training and could possibly cause injury; where they might be pretending to be blind, or where sexual services are offered alongside ‘traditional’ treatments.

To avoid such questionable establishments, Li Yuan advises that would-be customers ask to see certificates of qualification before they lie down on the massage table. To obtain official certification from the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, masseurs must pass exams after training for at least one year in the case of basic massage, or at least two years in the case of medical massage.

As for choosing a good therapist among the qualified professionals, that isn’t so easy. Price is no indication of therapeutic greatness: some of the best blind massages are as cheap as 60RMB per hour and are dolled out in no-frills, barely decorated clinics. ‘There are only really two ways to know for certain if someone is a good blind masseur,’ explains Li Yuan. ‘If they can tell what your illness or problem is without you telling them, or if, after a couple of massages, you start to feel improvements in the parts of your body that are not well.’

Failing that, you could perhaps try the recommendations of someone in the know…

Li Yuan’s top choices

Jianqiao Blind Massage Center (健桥盲人按摩中心) 14 Xinjiekouwai Dajie, Xicheng district (6202 8519). Open 10am-11pm; 90RMB for a one-hour massage. 西城区新街口外大街14号

Mang Bing (盲丙) A1 Waiguan Xiejie, Chaoyang district (8528 5282); 57 You’anmennei Dajie, Xicheng district (6352 1611). Open 9am-10pm daily; 60RMB for a one-hour massage. Chaoyang address: 朝阳区外馆斜街甲1号 Xicheng address: 西城区右安门内大街57号

Yong Quan (涌泉) 318 Guang’anmennei Dajie, Dongcheng district (6358 5306). Open 9am-8pm daily; 100RMB for a one-hour massage. 东城区广安门内大街318号

Blind massage glossary

足底按摩 zu di an mo
Foot massage

全身按摩 quan shen an mo
Whole body massage

一小时按摩 yi xiao shi an mo
One-hour massage

请出示按摩师证件 qing chu shian mo shi zheng jian
Please show me your certificate.

请不要太用力 qing bu yao taiyong li
Please be more gentle.

我这里痛 wo zhe li tong
I feel pain here.

可以用力按摩 ke yi yong li an mo
Can you press harder?

这样很好 zhe yang hen hao
That’s perfect

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