All the Qi in China

I was a cupping virgin when I got to Hong Kong, but I came home with the marks of a qi warrior….and then some.

Qi is the core of Chinese Medicine, which strives to keep qi balanced through nutrition, herbs, exercise and bodywork. Also spelled chi, ke, and ch’i – Qi is the life-force energy that hangs out in meridians all over the body. Long story, thousands of years to be honest, but suffice it to say – it’s pretty cool! Hinduists call it prana, Hawaiians call it mana and Tibetan Buddhists call it lúng. Simply put: It’s mojo.

In case you didn’t notice, I have not blogged for almost two months – and I’m pretty sure that’s due to my recent qi situation. I had a situation. Despite all of my traveling, exploring and full-fledged adventuring, ‘something’ kept me from sharing. For real! I’ve been holding on to so much, and a qi deficit would certainly explain it. As if my body was instinctively conserving energy. So yeah, that’s the story I’m going with – I’m gonna blame my little blogging hiatus on some sort of qi imbalance…that or the fact that I have been ridiculously busy. Either way, I’m ready to blog it out.

Acupuncture and some nifty pellet herbs from my NYC acupuncturist helped me through a rough bout of stomach issues a few years ago – of course only after I obsessively researched the herb ingredients. Since then I’ve been beyond hooked. There is a fascination with Chinese medicine that always draws me in, like a qi magnet. Chinese Medicine compliments Western Medicine – it’s the other side of healthcare. Like yin and yang. They are so different, you can hardly compare them. Acupuncture, moxabustion, tui’na – there isn’t much I haven’t tried. So, when I found myself in China, I had to try cupping.

Gwenyth, Jen, Posh and Lena have all tried it – baring the spots to prove it, thus making cupping the latest trend in alternative therapies. After centuries of cupping in a multitude of cultures worldwide – it’s Hollywood celebs that have made the practice popular again.


How’s it work? Mainstream cupping is done with heated glass cups which are placed over meridian points that are notorious for stagnation – which results in increased blood flow, optimal qi function, and detoxification. The process is painless, however the cup suction leaves tell-tale round reddish-brown spots on the skin that resemble bruises. The marks are hard to miss, hard to hide and hard to look at. It is awesome!

The Scoop on Cupping:

First seen in Egyptian hieroglyphics in 1500 B.C.

Originally done with animal horns and bamboo cups.

Hippocrates was a cupping pioneer.

Internationally popular, even in Russia, Europe, and America until the invention of modern medicine.

Used during surgery to divert blood flow away.

Used for wound healing, extraction of boils, and removal of venom from animal bites.

Commonly applied to the back, but can be used anywhere on the body.

Cupping massage involves dragging suctioned cups across the skin.

Commonly used in Eastern Europe to reduce cellulite.

Having never before been to The People’s Republic of China, I imagined it would be all feng-shui’d, with open-air markets full of mysterious herbal remedies. I was prepared to reach out and grab year-of-the-horse-qi right out of the air. I was mistaken.

We visited some of the smaller cities in the Guandong Province. Some of Guandong was a little rough around the edges for me, as in – illegal organ harvesting would not have been a big surprise! Starbucks was my oasis. The language barrier was an enormous obstacle, almost all food came with the head attached, and the gnawing desire to keep both of my kidneys was a constant. But, the Are-You-Kidding-Me Award goes to the hotel, where amenities included a gas mask tucked away in the closet. Only one mask….for two people. Luckily the regular-toilet vs. squat-toilet decision was an easy one. News Flash: Safe cupping territory would be limited to Hong Kong.

The British influence in Hong Kong narrowed the language gap enough to make conversation and the reading of signs less of a gamble, plus there were people everywhere at all hours just like Manhattan. Exploring the streets of Hong Kong was like being dropped into the middle of a Chuck Norris film.

If you are looking for wholesale herbal panaceas, Ko Shing Street is the place – blocks and blocks of open-air herbal apothecaries, with the exception of a few small boutiquey vendors. No pellet herbs here; all the shops had old-school dry herbs intended for DIY medicinal teas – which, in my experience, tend to be thick, chunky, and smelly, with herby floaters – I prefer pellets. From what I gathered, ginseng is considered to be good for all that ails you and the horns of just about any animal are used to treat erectile dysfunction – how ironic. Baskets of this, bags of that, and ginseng for days!


Where to cup it? Placing blind faith in my hotel concierge turned out to be a smart move. She referred me to an English speaking, well-respected doctor not far from my hotel in Kowloon. Dr. C.K. Lo….what are the odds he would be a red-headed smartass comedian doctor?

When I arrived to the medical arts building and saw the directory of doctors, I was astonished. Over thirty doctors named Lo! The whole population thing smacked me on the back of the head. O! M! G!


Dr. Lo’s office was unassuming, with a waiting room decorated in Chinese scripted patient education posters and informative health information, or at least I think that’s what it was. The receptionist escorted me back to Dr. Lo’s inner sanctum where he sat in a blue paper gown and surgical mask, behind a desk covered with open textbooks.

When he asked me why I was there, I described my chronic left shoulder and back pain, which paled in comparison to my intense desire to try authentic cupping. He seemed surprised I had not yet tried cupping and overjoyed I was familiar with acupuncture. After taking a look at my tongue and back, he asked what I do for work, then nodded and smiled saying, “You know medicine, good.” He told me there would be three parts to my treatment – acupuncture, massage with cupping, and herbs.

The receptionist put me in an exam room where I donned a paper gown (international garment of patient humiliation) and laid on my stomach. Dr. Lo entered a few moments later and began poking around my back. After placing a few needles around my back, electrodes where attached to a few of the needles and I was left alone in the room for twenty minutes with an easy-listening Hong Kong radio station playing an instrumental flute version of an Elvis song.

Me with my needles, electrodes and heat lamp.

Once he removed the needles, the receptionist pulled out her kickass Tui’na skills and began briskly rubbing the knots behind my shoulder blades, while zither music played softly on the radio. Finally, Dr. Lo entered and I smelled fire.

Traditional cupping involves heating cups with fire before placing them on the body. As the cup cools, suction develops. The suction removes impurities, improves the flow of qi and basically detoxifies the area. For anti-pyros there are cups that work with pure suction rather than heat.

The cups were left in place for ten minutes or so before Dr. Lo and the receptionist removed them. I heard a “pop” as they pulled each cup from my back, except for one. The cup that was under my left shoulder blade was not giving it up. They could not get it off. What are my options? Break it? Surgical removal? After a fair amount of intense conversational whispering that I did not understand, and a lot of tugging, the cup was removed. I was absolutely dying to see the marks on my back.

The pellet herbs I didn’t take.

After a feeble attempt to view my back with a compact mirror, I got dressed and joined Dr. Lo in his private office once again. He handed me three bags of pelleted herbs to take for the next three days. The content was not listed. Ugh! There was not a chance I would ingest them. Then he asked me for advice! One of his patients was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. He wanted to know which of two antibiotics would effectively treat a respiratory infection.

Qi whiz! An overwhelming sense of ‘aha’ came over me. Primary care in Hong Kong and China is Chinese Medicine; this guy is a general practitioner. Duh! That’s why he doesn’t know much about antibiotics. I asked a few questions about the patient and gave him my opinion. He was thrilled and grateful, but alas, he did not offer me the Western-medicine-lesson discount. (sigh)

Dr. C.K. Lo and me in his waiting room. Good man.

My fiancé, Steven screamed when he saw my back, “Is it supposed to look like that? How big was this guy? You’re bruised!” They totally looked like a dozen bruises, as if someone very symmetrically beat the crap out of me. Score!

Syd's cupping marks

Steven taking photos of my souvenirs.

IMG_1100 2

The dark spot on the upper left is from the stubborn cup.

As I lay in bed that night I felt no different. No audible qi buzzing through me. No mental fogginess from toxin release. Just normalness. Then two days later I flew home and got sick as a dog. Meningitis? Random infectious disease indigenous to China? I never get sick! After a trip to the hospital and a generic diagnosis of ‘exhaustion’, my mother asked if it was because of the cupping. I had forgotten all about the cupping. If it was, I bet it was the result of whatever junk was hiding in that last stubborn-cup. I don’t blame cupping, I blame my stagnant qi. Coincidentally, the stubborn cup was in the region of my back associated with immunity…..maybe I should’ve taken those herbs after all?

My hospital woes.

Whether it wrangles qi or merely inspires constructive circulation to starving tissues and a sluggish lymphatic system – cupping made its point to me.

Who me? Give up cupping? Not for all the qi in China!

One hour post-cupping and making a cup of tea. The red one is amazing.

I couldn’t literally grab qi right out of the air in Hong Kong or China, but the energy eminating from thousands of years of tradition was definitely palpable. It’s the year of the horse too, what’s not to love? When in China, sit back and go with the qi flow!

May the horse be with you!

New Year mural of wishes at Wong Tai Sin Temple.

Sydology wishes for year of the horse @ Wong Tai Sin Temple Hong Kong