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Chinese Fire Cupping

Cupping astounds some Western people. When they see the big round red "hickeys" on people or when they see it being done, they wonder what is going on? The interesting technique is akin to the other traditional medical techniques in that the practitioner is attempting to manipulate the various qi, Yin and Yang, or body fluids to influence health.

Does it work? The verdict on this is yet out: Western doctors generally don't recognize cupping as beneficial compared to Western medicine. Here's information on cupping's history, methods, and general acceptance in modern times.

The History of Chinese Cupping

Could It Have Originated in the West?

Fire CuppingFire Cupping

People practiced fire cupping in Europe, Asia and Africa for thousands of years. It isn't clearly a Chinese invention. The Ebers Papyrus that is one of the oldest medical textbooks in the world describes that in 1550 B.C. the Egyptians used cupping. In ancient Greece, Hippocrates (~400 BC) prescribed cupping for diseases. This method in multiple forms spread throughout Asian and European societies.

In more recent times, it was even popular in the 1700s in Western Europe, and it is still done following the traditional European style in some Eastern European countries. It was also recommended by Mohamed. In Islamic countries, cupping is often associated with blood-letting to draw blood out. It is a common treatment in the Islamic world.

Western cupping is different than Chinese cupping, and it isn't clear that it was a method adopted from abroad. Instead of putting fire inside the cup, in the West people may heat the cup with a flame or warm object held outside the cup. However, the effect is the same in that the blood and skin are pulled up. Western cupping doesn't use the Chinese system of acupuncture points.

When Did It Appear in the East?

Archaeologists have found jars that might have been used for fire cupping about 1000 BC that is the time of the end of the Shang Dynastyera (1600 - 1046 BC) and the beginning of the Zhou Dynasty (1046-221BC) era.

However, the first written text describing cupping as a medical procedure is thought to be a text that was written after the Han Dynastyera (206 BC-220 AD) by Ge Hong called A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies. The book text dates to about 300 AD, and this is much later than the earliest Western texts. Since written treatises about cupping predate Chinese records, maybe people adopted the technique from the West.

The Chinese Cupping Method

In China, cupping is used for high Yang issues such as bronchitis, coughs and colds. The Chinese think that these symptoms mean that there is too much Yang in the body. Through the fire cupping treatment or modern methods of applying suction to the skin such as by using suction pumps, they generally believe that some of the Yang factor can be removed so that the Yin and Yang balance can be restored.

However, there isn't total agreement as to why the procedure should work. There are differing theories about qi and how it functions. A more modern idea about Chinese cupping is that it removes pathogens or toxins that tend to accumulate just under or on the skin.


Cupping isn't meant for pregnant women, people with heart disease, and other conditions. In such cases, practitioners might perform moxibustion or acupuncture instead.

To Remove the Yang

Unlike moxibustion that increases the Yang, cupping removes the Yang. Like moxibustion, cupping can be performed along with acupuncture. Both needles and cupping tend to remove the Yang.

First, oil is applied to the skin, usually on the back, to help maintain the suction and to allow the cups to be slid around on the back snugly. The practitioner heats the air inside the cup or uses mechanical suction. He puts the cup on specific acupuncture meridians or at other spots on the body. Sometimes, incisions are made to draw out blood.

If acupuncture needles are used in conjunction with the cups, the needle may be applied at the acupuncture point, and the suction cup may be placed over it to enhance the effect.

Nowadays, modern machine suction pumps are commonly used instead of fire to create the suction effect. Generally, there is no discomfort since the suction isn't very strong, but it does draw the blood to the surface leaving a mark like a bruise mark or hickey. The mark generally disappears within a few days.

The Acceptance of Cupping Today

Various methods of cupping are still practiced around the world as was described above. Cupping has a several thousand year old history. The Islamic world has a strong tradition of cupping since they think that Mohamed recommended the treatment. They have their own strong tradition and don't utilize Chinese cupping techniques.

Chinese fire cupping is a traditional technique that is now not commonly used in China. The cupping technique utilizing the traditional acupuncture meridians has been introduced in the West, but Chinese cupping is still a rare procedure.

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