Last updated by chinatravel at 2013-10-24
Cupping, or the art and science of applying suction cups to the skin for therapeutic purposes, originated possibly as far back as the late Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty period. The earliest recorded use of cupping stems from its brief mention in the Jin (CE 265- 420) Dynasty book, Baopuzi, by Ge Hong (CE 284-364), a renowned Taoist, alchemist and literary writer who, like most learned men of former times - first in the East, then, a century later, in Europe - dabbled in just about everything (for example, the Baopuzi covers topics that range from religion (including Taoism - or Daoism, as it is also called - as well as atheism) to philosophy and psychology, and is also an almanac of more general subjects, some touching on therapeutic cures, longevity, etc., while Ge's other book, the Xi Jing Za Ji, is a history of Asia in general and of China in particular).
The first recorded instance of cupping involved the use of animal horns which were heated in boiling water, then placed over boils and other sores in order to draw out pus, hence the name jiaofa, or the "horn technique" (the hot air trapped inside the horn when the latter is pressed onto the skin produces a natural suction effect… you can see this effect in action yourself by washing the inside of a throw-away plastic water bottle with hot water, then quickly screwing the cap on tightly - the enveloping suction will draw the thin plastic sides of the bottle inward, causing it to crinkle, making popping noises).
Later, cupping was used to rejuvenate areas of skin tissue that had become dry and inelastic due to a lack of blood to the area in question - cupping could restart the natural capillary action. Large needles were inserted into the skin to a subcutaneous point below the area of "dead" skin, then the cups were applied in order to draw blood. This eventually also led to the Chinese practice of blood letting, also known in Western culture, where it was believed that the periodic tapping of old blood was good for the system, as it caused new and fresh replacement blood to be created.
Later still, cupping was used to alleviate a host of other maladies, eventually becoming a sort of panacea for all manner of illnesses, though the therapeutic effect thus produced might well have derived in some instances solely from the feeling of wellness that the act of being thus attended to generates, in much the same way that a good massage is as "heavenly" to a human being as is a thorough de-lousing (grooming) to a monkey or a baboon.
In the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty period, cupping was a common cure used to alleviate the symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis, and during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, cupping was believed to be a useful remedy for just about everything from a cold to pneumonia. A more practical application of cupping during the early years of surgery in China was as a means of diverting the blood flow away from superficial incisions, thus reducing blood loss.
Other ancient cultures such as those of the Greeks and the Egyptians employed cupping to alleviate pain in connection with headaches and fever, as well as in treating severe menstruation disturbances in women. Also here, cupping became a panacea of sorts that could "cure" anything from a poor appetite to vertigo, or a feeling of faintness when exposed to great heights, and in Europe and the Americas, cupping was common during the latter part of the 19th century. It was at this time that medical studies confirmed that there was more to cupping than a mere feeling of wellness - it was clinically proved that cupping had a measurable therapeutic effect.
Cupping became so widely accepted in Western culture that a special jar with an electrical suction device eventually replaced the older method of heating in order to produce a suction effect. Then, almost as quickly as cupping had become a fad, it disappeared in the West.
Cupping is still practiced in China as well as in many other parts of Asia, where it is still used to remove toxins from the skin, to energize the subcutaneous fatty layer below the skin, to re-activate capillary action that can reduce the incidence of varicose veins, and to revitalize post-natal skin discoloration (blanching) due to the stretching and contraction of the skin. In China, the old-fashioned method of heating cups is still in vogue, although heating by means of hot water has given way to heating by means of a flame, and where the modern glass jar has replaced the earthenware pot, the bamboo "cup" (a section of hollow bamboo that includes a joint, i.e., is plugged in one end) and the animal horn.
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