Everyone’s heard of Chinese massage. It’s an ancient form of healing which has been around for thousands of years.
But what’s actually involved in a Chinese massage? And what types of Chinese massage are there?
Today, we’ll explore this amazing alternative form of medicine and why treatment might be beneficial.
I’ll also share some tips to help you, especially if you haven’t received a Chinese massage before.
What is Chinese massage?
Chinese massage is all about ‘qi’ (pronounced “chee”), which is energy.
The role of the Chinese massage practitioner is to encourage the flow of qi throughout the body, which clears blockages and restores balance.
It’s believed that this helps with pain, disease and illness, as well as maintaining good health.
Chinese massage encompasses a number of traditional treatments and techniques.
There are two main kinds of body massage, and these are called ‘tui na’ (推拿) and ‘zhi ya’ (智雅). However, the general term for massage in Chinese is ‘an mo’ (按摩).
Other popular treatments include acupressure, reflexology, and gua sha, and I’ll explain each of them below.
Chinese tui na massage
This is the most common Chinese massage.
Essentially, it’s manual therapy done over the clothes. Tui na or tuina (pronounced “tway nah”) literally means push and grab.
Practitioners use a range of techniques which can include kneading, palpating and stretching, as well as pushing and grabbing as the name suggests.
Some tui na techniques are considered yin, which is more gentle and passive. The yang approach, however, is more active and physical, and this creates intense sensations by stimulating deep blockages and knots.
It’s therefore important that you are upfront with your practitioner and tell them ahead of time what kind of massage and pressure you like.
Tui na can be used for a range of musculoskeletal conditions such as back and neck pain, as well as ailments including headache and tiredness.
Depending on where you go for your tui na massage, there may not be much privacy during the treatment, and some practitioners may even talk to each other!
So, if you’ve only ever had relaxation massages before, tui na may not be for you.
Having said that, many people swear by this particular type of massage and feel the effects straight away or in the days following.
Chinese zhi ya massage (acupressure)
This is quite different to tui na.
Zhi ya focuses on pinching and pressing the surface of the skin, using acupressure techniques.
Acupressure involves the same pressure points and meridians as acupuncture. However, the key difference is acupressure uses fingers instead of needles.
With zhi ya massage, the practitioner will locate points on the body which can be massaged to relieve large muscle groups from strain and stress.
The pressure promotes qi to flow throughout the body. This increases circulation and can enhance the nervous system.
Some Chinese people use zhi ya as a beauty treatment because they believe it releases toxins from the body and enhances muscle tone.
Chinese head massage (acupressure)
It’s not just our back and neck that hold tension.
You can also hold tension in your head, and this contributes to headache and migraine.
In fact, Cleveland Clinic estimates that about 40% of people globally have tension-type headaches, while another 10% experience migraine headaches.
A Chinese head massage involves treating special points on the head, helping the whole body relax and relieve muscle tension.
This kind of massage also involves using acupressure techniques, and there are at least 60 acupressure points spread across the scalp.
Speaking of the scalp, Chinese people have incorporated combing the scalp as part of their daily routine for thousands of years.
By stimulating blood and energy circulation, scalp massage provides nutrients and oxygen to the hair’s roots. It’s believed that this makes the hair grow stronger and healthier.
You can learn to massage your scalp at home by following five simple lines and three main meridians.
If you get your hair cut and washed in China, a head and scalp massage may be included as part of the service, even if you didn’t ask for it. Trust me – it’s happened to me before!
Interestingly, a medical study found that a 10-minute session of Chinese head massage can help regulate the cardiac autonomic nervous system, such as decrease the heart rate.
Chinese foot massage (reflexology)
There’s nothing better than a soothing foot massage at the end of a long day.
But did you know that according to traditional Chinese medicine, each part of the foot has an effect on the health and wellbeing of other parts of the body?
For example, the toes represent the head and neck, so work performed on this part of the foot can have a positive effect on things like your sinuses.
Like tui na, Chinese foot reflexology massage applies a combination of firm pressure and sweeping strokes on the feet (particularly the sensitive spots on the soles, sides and upper areas).
However, reflexology differs from other kinds of massage. The reflexologist focuses on micro-movement techniques while using their fingers, thumbs and knuckles.
Chinese reflexology also has a much greater depth than Western foot reflexology. With such pressure, the flow of energy throughout the body is regulated and imbalances are said to be restored.
Although there’s no one standard foot reflexology chart, practitioners generally agree on the regions of the foot that impact on the various organs and body systems.
It’s also important to note that a reflexologist may work on other areas of your body, not just your feet.
Chinese face massage (gua sha)
Pronounced “gwah shah”, gua sha is a centuries-old Chinese face massage.
The practice uses an angled stone to stimulate parts of the face. This can increase circulation and the flow of qi, promote lymphatic drainage and reduce muscle tension.
In the beauty industry, some people claim that gua sha even reduces wrinkles and provides a more sculpted appearance, though doctors agree that it can’t actually remove fat.
You can perform gua sha on yourself as part of a beauty routine, but if you scrape too hard you may bruise or get red marks on your face which could last for days.
If you’re not confident locating the meridians and doing the right thing, you should see a licensed gua sha practitioner.
A licensed practitioner will focus on health-related concerns rather than beauty.
Hot stone massage
Other bodywork often associated with Chinese massage includes hot stone massage, particularly at day spas in Western countries. But it’s not a traditional Chinese massage.
This modality is a little different to the kinds of massage mentioned above because alone it doesn’t involve manual manipulation.
Flat stones, made of materials like basalt or jade, are placed on specific points and meridians of the body. The stones release heat at a controlled rate, which is said to help with both physical and emotional blockages.
The heat from the stones warms and relaxes the fascia, which is the tissue that surrounds your muscles. This in turn warms the muscles, allowing the therapist to access deeper into your body as they glide the rocks across your skin.
Hot stone massage may be combined with hands-on oil massage at your day spa, such as deep tissue or remedial, as part of a package.
A hot stone massage is both healing and nurturing for the body. It’s especially pleasant in the colder months!
Despite the benefits associated with hot stone massage, there are some risks involved and it may not be appropriate for people with diabetes or pregnant women.
This kind of massage is found in mainland China.
It’s believed that people who are blind are better masseurs due to the lack of visual cues stimulating their ability to feel out areas of tension.
This is particularly the case for tui na massage as it involves such a wide range of tactile techniques.
If you are visiting China and want to receive a blind massage, get your tour guide to find you a licensed masseur.
In Mandarin, blind massage is “mángrén ànmó” or 盲人按摩 in Chinese characters.
Benefits of Chinese massage
Receiving a Chinese massage may have the following benefits:
- Relaxes the mind and body
- Improves circulation
- Maintains homeostasis
- Calms the nervous system
- Relieves pain
- Relieves muscle tension
- Reduces stress
- Improves sleep quality
- Improves cognition
- Increases joint flexibility
- Boosts immunity.
It’s important to note that the benefits can differ greatly between people. It can also depend on your practitioner and their areas of expertise.
Massage is an evolving area within the health and wellbeing space, and more research is needed to truly explore the benefits.
Chinese massage vs deep tissue and other massage techniques
Chinese massage is similar to many other massage styles around the world as it helps improve circulation and reduce tension.
However, Chinese massage is based on ‘qi’ (energy) and restoring balance, as well as activating certain points of the body to stimulate other parts of the body.
This is different to Western-style massage such as deep tissue and remedial massage which focus on muscles and involve a more clinical approach to treatment such as tests.
Chinese massage is more aligned with the traditional Japanese massage, shiatsu, than it is with Western massage. This is because shiatsu is based on the concept of energy points.
Tui na is not necessarily a pain-free experience. But for most Western massages, especially relaxation (Swedish) massage, you should feel different levels of pressure but never any pain.
In addition, Western-style massage almost always involves applying oil to the body.
When you receive a Chinese massage in Western countries like the US and UK, you may get to choose between a dry massage and an oil massage.
A dry massage means you leave you clothes on (and the massage is performed on top of the clothes), while an oil massage means you remove some of your clothing to expose the target area.
In China, dry massage is the traditional kind. However, if you visit a health spa while visiting China, you can receive different types of treatment including oil.
What about happy ending massage?
This is absolutely not a traditional Chinese massage!
Having said that, the reality is that this kind of erotic massage is prevalent not just in China but around the world. And it’s been around for centuries.
If you’re interested, you can read more about the legalities of happy ending massage in China and how it differs from a legitimate health spa massage.
There’s also an amazing story on The World of Chinese about a Chinese girl who worked illegally in a massage parlor in New York.
So there you have it, Chinese massage at a glance.
The concept of qi is central to this area of traditional Chinese medicine, and the benefits can include things like improved circulation, pain relief and better overall health.
The main kinds of Chinese massage are tui na, zhi na, acupressure, reflexology and gua sha, and each involve different strokes and levels of pressure.
Oil and hot stones can also be incorporated into treatment, especially in Western countries.
I hope I’ve been able to shine some light on this interesting area of Chinese medicine and healing.
Now, go and treat yourself with an amazing massage!
Thanks for reading my article today. You may also like the one I wrote about the greatest Chinese inventions (how many do you know?).
Main image credit: Buritora on Shutterstock. Disclaimer: This information is of a general nature only and should not be substituted for professional medical advice. Speak with a qualified practitioner about your individual healthcare needs.
FAQ about Chinese massage
What is Chinese massage called?
The most common Chinese massage is called ‘tui na’ though there are other kinds such as acupressure and reflexology.
What is Chinese massage like?
Chinese masseurs focus on improving the flow of ‘qi’ (energy) throughout the body. To attain this, they use a range of techniques to unblock pathways and restore balance. A Chinese massage may involve both gentle and more active strokes, and you can feel the effects either straight away or in the days following.
What is traditional Chinese massage?
Traditional Chinese massage is a part of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM for short) and includes tui na, zhi ya, acupressure and reflexology.
Is Chinese massage good for you?
It can be great for you! Just make sure you find a masseur who is accredited and qualified. Referrals (word of mouth) are often a good way of finding a suitable masseur.
Is Chinese massage good for back pain?
It can be great for back pain. It can even be used in combination with other treatments, such as physiotherapy and chiropractic, to help relieve back pain. If you have acute pain or an injury, make sure you see your doctor first though.
Why is Chinese massage painful?
The massage therapist may exert too much pressure and this may over-stimulate parts of the body. It’s worth having a conversation with your practitioner about your preferences before starting treatment. You should also be upfront about the state of your health and any pre-existing conditions you have. Chat with your doctor first if you have any concerns.