When you go to China, one common type of business you’ll see all over the place in the big cities are massage parlors. You’ll probably be surprised at the experiences you’ll have and the time and attention you’ll get. There are actually several types of Chinese massage you can try. The most common kind is like Western massage and is called Tuina (推拿, lit. push-pull); another is Zhi Ya (指压, lit. finger pressure); and women especially like a foot massage and pedicure. Here’s information about getting a massage; and about the history and philosophy.
Be forewarned: Many of the massage parlors are actually more like brothels. Some are like hotels for a bed for the night that also give complimentary foot washings or head washings and massages. But some parlors specialize in actually giving massages, and a lot of tourists and expats really like the feeling of getting pampered with a Chinese massage.
Visiting a Massage Spa
When you first go to a modern massage spa in the high-class areas of big cities in China, you’ll probably feel like you are entering a hair parlor or a beauty salon, and indeed people often can also get a haircut or hairdo at the same place. But you’ll see rows of beds or perhaps private rooms for singles or groups, and staff will be waiting for customers.
So pick the massage parlor you want, and try it. You can ask the staff and the reception desk for the kind of massage you want using the terms below, and ask about their services and prices. Settle on the prices first to avoid getting surprises. A full body massage at a moderately priced place might cost about 70 or so RMB or about 11 USD.
Styles of Massage
The general term for massage is anmo 按摩 (ànmó /ann-mor/). There are several common styles of massage to choose from:
Tuina 推拿 (tuīná, /tway-naa/)
Tuina is the most common kind of massage. It is a general name for massage. It includes everything from acupressure, to aromatherapy, to getting rubbed with herbal oils, to a hair wash. However, what most people will experience is lots of rubbing, kneading, thumping and some acupressure or “zhiya.” The focus of these massages is mainly to feel good and to feel pampered. The sessions may last for two hours.
However, Chinese businessmen go to massage parlors for more sensual purposes late in the evening. Very young women give these late night massages, and they are not meant for women.
Zhi Ya 指压 (zhǐyā, /jrr-yaa/)
Zhi ya is a form of Chinese massage based on acupressure. It is like a tuina massage except that the focus is more on pinching and pressing at acupuncture points. People who have a medical condition may want to try this as an alternative medical therapy. It is actually a practice of traditional Chinese medicine. See below for why this kind of massage may actually heal you or make you feel better.
Foot Massage 按脚 (ànjiǎo, /ann-jyaoww/)
Foot massages are usually a woman’s favorite. Your feet may be whirled in a Jaccuzi-like foot tub with aromatherapy. You can ask for a pedicure too.
In Chinese medicine, foot massages are thought to be good for stimulating health, and it is thought that it is especially good for older people. There are usually several steps followed, though what happens at any parlor varies a lot.
Step no. 1 involves soaking. The feet are soaked for ten minutes or up to an hour in warm water with ingredients such as Chinese medicinal herbs, essential oils, or bath salts. Peppermint and lavender oils are preferred by many.
Step no. 2 involves rubbing on oil or creams. Mineral oil is often used for this. This comforts the customer and softens the skin.
Step no. 3 involves messaging the soles and then the toes. It is thought that the feet are a virtual qi map of the body so that manipulating various spots on the feet manipulates the various parts of the body via the qi. The toes are rubbed to affect the head, and this can relieve headaches and stress.
Step no. 4 involves messaging the sides of the feet and the ankles. This is thought to help make the back and spine healthier.
Philosophy and History
Foot massages and various qi manipulation techniques on the foot have a long history in China. The foot is very important in Chinese medicine. It makes sense that good circulation throughout the body is essential and that the blood tends to pool in the feet and lower legs. However, in Chinese medicine, it is thought that messaging the feet and doing various techniques such as acupuncture, acupressure, moxibustion and fire cupping can make the whole body healthy.
These ideas are thousands of years old, and they have to do with the philosophy of the qi and Yin and Yang meridians. You can read about this subject in the articles about acupuncture, Chinese medical philosophy, moxibustion, and fire cupping on our site. The idea is to effect a balance of the qi and Yin and Yang and to help the body fluids circulate appropriately.
In the approximately 2,000 year old medical and Daoist philosophical text called the Huangdi Neijing (黃帝內經 /hwung-dee nay-jing/), massage is recommended for health and treating medical conditions. It is thought that as people grow older, they need more foot massages. It helps people relax and sleep better.
A skilled masseuse or masseur can actually use foot massage for diagnostic purposes and point out internal disharmonies of which the person might not have been aware. So if you are interested in Chinese medical treatments, you can find a trained practitioner.