During the hottest part of summer, temperatures in Beijing regularly soar above 95 F (35 C). To cope with the heat, women shed pants and long-sleeved shirts for tank tops and skirts, while the less fashion-conscious men simply roll up their shirts, exposing their midriff, however rotund.
A few summers ago, one of the these bare-bellied men walked past me on the street. As I turned to look at him, I noticed a series of purple and pink bruises on his back, each about the size of a baseball. At first glance, it looked like he had been the victim of a brutal assault. But each of the bruises was the same size, and perfectly circular.
I told one of my friends what I had seen, and she said the bruises were from cupping, a form of traditional Chinese medicine commonly used in Asia and the Middle East. In China, cupping is known as baguan, and is used to alleviate everything from headaches to back pain.
I’ll never try that, I thought, after picturing a dozen or so tiny cups stuck to my body, tugging at my skin.
However, living in China has a way of changing your mindset. After a couple of years, riding in a car without wearing a seat belt doesn’t seem so dangerous because everybody does it. And letting a school of tiny fish chew the dead skin off the bottom of your feet sounds like a completely reasonable way to wind down after a long week.
So, a few weeks ago I went for my first cupping treatment. I had a runny nose and sore throat, and the woman who ran the neighborhood massage business said the cups would help cure my cold by removing the toxins from my body.
As I lay on a bed, a woman wheeled in a tray with around 20 glass cups, and asked me to turn on my stomach. One by one, she applied alcohol to the inside of the cups, lit the flammable liquid with a match and stuck them to my back.
The cups made a “popping” sound as they made contact with my body, and began pulling my skin up. It didn’t hurt, but I could feel the pressure increase the longer she left them on there. I zoned out, and after what seemed like 10 to 15 minutes she removed them from my back.
Did it a make a difference? Not that I could tell. My cold only got worse, but that was more my fault, for not resting enough, than the cupping.
The experts are also undecided. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, there haven’t been enough quality clinical trials conducted on cupping, and “more rigorous studies are required” to determine its effectiveness in treating pain.
Regardless of whether cupping works, I’m open to trying it again. But no matter how hot it gets, I’m keeping my shirt pulled down.