Cupping and TCM – A Call to Be Reasonable and Balanced

Sa Zhong Zi (meaning “sow seeds”) is the pseudonym for an American living in China assisting with the support and strengthening of the Chinese house church.

The media has been abuzz with reports of Olympic athletes with red circles on their backs. For some this is a curiosity and for others it is a disturbing sight to behold. The picture of Michael Phelps with dark red circles that look like pepperoni sausage slices is an unfamiliar thing to the Western media and most westerners. In China, however, seeing people with these marks on various parts of their body is a common daily occurrence. I have personally undergone cupping in China and have benefitted from its affects.

I’ve read two articles written by the British media (BBC and The Economist) that ask similar questions. What is this and does it work? These are perfectly legitimate questions to ask. In asking these questions, however, the conclusion of the media is that there is no proof from medical science that “cupping” (the English name for this treatment) actually “works.” The conclusion therefore is that it is either hocus pocus or some kind of gimmicky attempt to psych out one’s opponent.

The problem with this view is that it fails to take seriously another culture’s approach to medicine and relegates something strange to nothing more than “snake oil.” The condescending tone of both articles, but in particular the one in The Economist, is disturbing and offensive. What makes it even worse is that the journalist apparently did not do his/her research on the topic.

Cupping is described in the article as a process involving liquid filled cups that are heated up and placed on one’s skin. There are different kinds of cupping, including dry cupping, fire cupping, and wet cupping. Wet cupping involves a certain amount of blood letting which seems to be the reason it is called “wet” cupping, but I am not aware that any of these forms of cupping involve filling cups with liquid.

Cupping is practiced in many Asian and Middle Eastern countries. Chinese culture is, roughly speaking, 5,000 years old and many of their practices – including traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) – have been around for thousands of years. The best Chinese doctors I have visited and been treated by are very honest about the limits of TCM. Recently I visited a doctor in our city who is considered an expert in respiratory issues. He prescribed some Chinese medicine, but informed me that in my condition I may also need to take western medicine. The doctor’s approach seemed very reasonable and balanced. He is familiar with both schools of medicine.

I find this mentality lacking in many (not all) of the western doctors that I have consulted with. In 2004 I had a stroke and after 3 weeks in the hospital, 5 MRI’s, a Spinal Tap, multiple ultrasounds and thorough exams in a very well respected American hospital, I was released with no clear diagnosis. Western doctors, like western people, should be humble before they write off the practices of another culture.