Why TCM is making a comeback

“You are very hot,” said the handsome Shanghainese man leaning over me as I lay almost naked upon his table. This was no lead-up to a steamy affair. I was flat on my back inside a tiny room at a local massage centre in the city of Shanghai where you can duck in for a half-hour Gua Sha or Cupping session to restore your balance.

The Chinese have long known how to maintain their wellbeing with healing treatments. At any given time of the day or night in China you will find locals receiving their weekly reflexology sessions to keep their health in check. There are 24-hour bathhouses where one can spend hours soaking in water therapies, having treatments, visiting saunas and eating – all in the name of wellbeing and longevity. Most of the treatments are based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), one of the oldest healing disciplines on earth.


City of the future, and the past

“It’s Shanghai’s time to shine,” a local told me during my recent visit and after a few days in this exciting city I couldn’t agree more. Once a sleepy fishing town, Shanghai is now China’s largest city and an important finance and trade centre. Many of its streets boast colonial and Art Deco architecture, the remains of its years as a base for European Imperialism during the 1940s. More recently, Shanghai has received attention for its sophisticated and vibrant fashion, restaurants, art and nightlife.

Gazing out the window of my hotel room on the 30th floor, I could see the birth and death of a city. Below were thousands of laneways between rows of small dwellings where up to 20 families live and share facilities. On the other side of the hotel lay the emerging Shanghai, a city of silver skyscrapers, pollution and all the trappings of so-called progress. The scene before me demonstrated perfectly the synchronicity of life. There cannot be growth without decay and everything in life is always changing.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons I have spent the past several years exploring spas around the world. For the beauty of these havens is that within them many ancient beauty and bathing traditions are being revived and kept alive. China is no exception.


Modern venue, ancient healing

It did not take me long to discover that it is the no-frills places in China that offer some of the most memorable healing experiences. At the Kanjung Massage Centre, the interiors were simple. Herbal tea was on the boil and with lots of chatting (the Chinese love to talk at spas), the atmosphere felt warm and inviting. I opted for Gua Sha and Cupping, both traditional Chinese medical treatments. During the Gua Sha, the therapist used a small utensil to scrape the excess “heat” out of my body. Then he placed dozens of glass cups all over my back to further suck the heat and wind from me. I’ve had Cupping before (usually with acupuncture) but it never hurt like this. Afterwards, though, I did feel significantly lighter and looser in my body-mind.

Ever since I had my first flower-bath in a bungalow-style spa in Bali, I’ve had a soft spot for traditional healing experiences. I’ve found that the humble environments often have the best therapists. It was no surprise then to discover that many of the therapists at the traditional outlets in Shanghai come from rural China where TCM is prevalent and healing is in their blood.

Dragonfly is an up-and-coming brand of contemporary oriental-chic outlets around the city. Affordable Chinese massages and reflexology are on the menu right alongside Japanese Shiatsu and aromatherapy massages. People pop in for a regular 30-minute head and shoulder massage during their lunch break or after work. What’s fascinating is that these sorts of outlets are often open until 2 am and are usually full of locals and visitors until the wee hours. They are the perfect after-dinner experience before you hit the pillow for a guaranteed good night’s sleep.


Simple pleasures

While most of us are aware of the benefits of Chinese medical treatments such as acupuncture and reflexology, there are so many other treatments to try when travelling in China. Given that healthy feet allow a healthy outlook on life, a Shanghainese Pedicure, which is recognised as a medical treatment in China, should not be missed. During this ritual, your feet are first bathed in warm soapy water while the therapist lays out the relevant tools, blades and bottles of medicinal waters. After closely inspecting your feet, he or she then uses the sharp tools and knives to scrape and shave away any imperfections in the feet including tough skin, callouses and corns to return your feet to an as-new condition. The finale is often a nail trim and buff.

There are also popular attractions like the “Blind Man massage parlours” where blind therapists give massages such as the Tui Na. Traditionally, blind men were trained in massage techniques like reflexology to create employment for the blind. Today the blind-man massage is believed by some to be one of the best treatments in China (it must be said, though, that others believe quite the opposite!).

Whatever your choice, the therapists in China are not afraid to apply their skills and talents. At the start of each Chinese massage I had, the therapist literally pounced on my upper back and shoulder area as if they knew instinctively what part of my body needed attention most. Using various methods such as pushing and pulling, acupressure and vigorous penetration, they manipulated my body without mercy. The aftermath of these vigorous sessions was invariably fantastic.


TCM as a lifestyle

During my journey, I was fortunate to spend time with Professor Dong Jing-Cheng from the Hua Shan Hospital of Fudan University in Shanghai; he is also the director of the Department of Chinese Integrative Medicine. According to Professor Dong, there is a TCM department in every hospital in China. “Traditional Chinese Medicine is no longer only an ancient or traditional medicine but very much part of modern medicine,” said Professor Dong. “There is no such thing as western medicine, only modern medicine.”

I believe him. Traditional Chinese Medicine has saved me several times. Years ago when I started suffering anxiety attacks, I found that it was the TCM physicians who knew what to do. While the allopathic doctors wanted to prescribe me quick-fix drugs, the Chinese doctors suggested weekly acupuncture sessions and daily Qigong and after a few weeks of that the anxiety attacks ceased. Since then, no matter what city I am living in, it has always been the TCM practitioners I have turned to for guidance.

The thing I find reassuring about TCM physicians is that they spend quality time diagnosing before prescribing any herbs or treatments. They want to understand the whole state of their patient’s physical, mental and emotional health. Pulse diagnosis; checking of the skin, eyes and tongue; and a complete overview of one’s history and lifestyle is considered. It was also TCM that awakened something in me (I like to call it “my inner Chi”) that gave me the strength to follow my dream of becoming a writer.

Ken Rosen, TCM practitioner at Chiva-Som International Health Resort in Thailand, explains it this way: “TCM is not only about preventing illness but also self-empowerment. Where once people put the power of healing in the hands of their gods and ancestors, around 2,500 years ago, Confucius introduced the concept of taking responsibility for their own health and the rest is history.”

This is why I travelled to China – to empower myself with knowledge and soak up more about their centuries-old healing system. Wandering around the streets of Shanghai you start to understand that it’s so much more than a health modality, it is an entire culture and lifestyle. Every morning, for example, you can partake in morning Tai Chi at Jing An Park which adjoins Jing An Temple in downtown Shanghai. Shanghai is also home to 24-hour medicine vending machines offering a wide range of traditional Chinese medicine and touch-screen computer dispensing advice.

Expat yoga teacher Richard Baimbridge, who has lived in China for several years, describes bathhouses that are home to saunas, hotel facilities, restaurants, even movie theatres and 24-hour herbal dispensaries. “Often, entire families come and spend an entire day together enjoying everything from massages to singing contests and ear wax removal,” he says.

The good news is that TCM is on the increase. In a recent article published in the China Daily in April, for example, it was reported that Guangzhou, located near Hong Kong and Taiwan, is a hub for TCM treatments. At one of its clinics, up to 60 per cent of patients each day are foreigners, with a majority of them coming in for acupuncture to treat common complaints such as repetitive strain injury (RSI). It was also reported that at Guangzhou University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, which was founded in 1956, there are around 10,000 students currently studying some branch of the discipline.


China leads the way

With the 2008 Olympics approaching and the fact that China is a hot zone for manufacturing and business, it’s little wonder that there are now dozens of high-end luxury spas that integrate TCM treatments into their spas. Already, in other parts of China and the world, there are a host of fusion Chinese therapies being created. Creators are also reaching back in time for inspiration and are reviving some exciting Emperor and Empress rituals that were once practised in ancient palaces. Imagine Hot Jade rocks smoothed across your skin to alleviate muscle pain or Bamboo Stick Tapping, where the physician lightly taps your body with bamboo sticks to increase circulation. What is exciting is that we are only just beginning to see the potential of what lies ahead.

According to industry experts, China will drive, not just influence, spas around our region in years to come. Cathy Chon from CatchOn & Company, a strategic marketing and communications company based in Hong Kong, says that while China’s spa industry is still very much in its infancy, the territorial lines will start to blur as bathhouses, massage centres, foot reflexology centres and salons start to cash in on the rise of the spa. “China will be a major force regionally,” says Ms Chon, who suggests there are several factors converging to make this inevitable.

“For a start, its emerging middle class, which is currently numbered at 300 million and predicted to increase to 520 million by 2025, is hungering for new experiences that spas have to offer and is driving the demand.

“Second, China is poised to be the most popular destination by 2020 [some travel experts say it will actually reach “most popular” status by 2011] and this has enormous relevance for inbound and domestic travel. With China’s landscape full of untapped cultural and heritage sites and mineral hot springs, it is poised for the wellness destination boom.”


Yoga in China

  • Take a yoga class at one of Y + Yoga Center’s two Shanghai studios ( The Fuxing studio, in the beautiful French Concession area, is in a gorgeously restored four-storey building with lovely dark wooden floors and classic Chinese-style doors. There’s also a great café downstairs called “Ginger” that serves juices and healthy soups and salads.
  • Also recommended is a class at Yogic Arts ( with Duncan Wong, who teaches a blend of yoga and martial arts.


Travel Tips

Visas: You do need a visa for China and it’s a good idea to apply for one a few weeks before you travel.

Weather: Shanghai has four beautiful seasons. If you love Spring, visit during March-June; December-February are the coldest months of the year; and July-October are the hottest.

Language: Not many people speak English so make sure that you have all your addresses written in Chinese for directions. Standard Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China.

Gifts: Bring lots of gifts! Nearly everywhere I went the Chinese gave me presents (usually beautifully wrapped, exquisite teas). Next time I will bring Australian teas or something indigenous as an offering to my hosts.


Judy Chapman is the author of three books on spas and wellbeing and the former Editor-in-Chief of Spa-Asia magazine. For the past five years she has been exploring the spas of the world with pilgrimages through the onsens of Japan, the Himalayas and Ayurvedic spas across India and Sri Lanka.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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