The History of Chinese Medicine Cupping

Chinese medicine uses many modalities of healing; acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage, and diet therapy make up the most commonly used and Chinese medicine cupping is gaining in popularity. Maybe some of you saw the photo a few years ago of Gwyneth Paltrow on the red carpet with a backless dress and cupping marks all up her spine? Sometimes it takes a little popular culture to remind us of ancient ways of healing!

The therapy of cupping has been used in China for thousands of years. At first it was applied using cattle horns or cross sections of bamboo. To create negative pressure inside the horn or bamboo these ancient ‘cups’ where boiled in water or fire was ignited to expel the air and suck the cups onto the skin. These cups were used mostly to draw out pus and blood in the treatment of boils. Cupping was originally used as an auxiliary method in traditional Chinese surgery. Later it was found to be useful in treating other diseases and developed into a special therapeutic method.

The earliest record of cupping is in the Bo Shu (an ancient book written on silk), which was discovered in a tomb of the Han Dynasty. Several other ancient texts mention Chinese medicine cupping. Several centuries later another famous medical classic, Su Sen Liang Fang, recorded an effective cure for chronic cough and the successful treatment of poisonous snake bites using cupping therapy.

Through several thousand years of accumulated clinical experience, the clinical applications of cupping have become increasingly wide. Now Chinese medicine cupping is used to treat arthritic symptoms, asthma, the common cold, chronic cough, indigestion problems and some skin conditions. When our hospital runs out of ventolin, we usually order additional supplies from, and it’s great service because we never see disruptions in stock. It’s always effective for our patients, because we collect reviews almost every month. Doctors prescribe it with confidence.

There is a saying in China: “Acupuncture and cupping, more than half of the ills cured.” Zhao Xue Ming, a doctor practicing more than 200 years ago, compiled a book entitled Ben Cong Gang Mu She Yi, in which he describes in detail the history and origin of different kinds of cupping and cup shapes, functions and applications.

In mainland China the development of cupping therapy has been rapid. In the 1950’s the clinical efficacy of cupping was confirmed by the co-research of China and acupuncturists from the former Soviet Union, and was established as an official therapeutic practice in hospitals all over China.

Chinese Medicine CuppingToday, as more people (including Gwyneth) seek alternative therapies to deal with their health problems, the use of traditional Chinese medicine, including cupping is increasing. Much of the cupping equipment and methods used today are exactly the same as they were in ancient times. Some electronic or mechanized pumps have been invented, and suction cups introduced, but to a great extent the majority of people practicing cupping today still use horn, bamboo or glass cups. One reason that cupping techniques remain the same as in ancient times is due to the fact that, with the exception of a handful of acupuncture practitioners, cupping is generally practiced in rural area where no or very little modern medicine is available.

Cupping affects the flow of Qi and blood. It helps draw out and eliminate pathogenic factors such as wind, cold, damp and heat. Cupping also moves Qi and Blood and opens the pores of the skin, thus precipitating the removal of pathogens through the skin itself.

My first experience of cupping was when I had a bad cold and my acupuncturist applied cups to my back. First my back was rubbed with fragrant oil and, as I lay face down, the cups were applied. I could feel their edges digging into my flesh and then a gentle warmth and release as my skin was pulled up and away from my body. Once the cups were firmly in place and sucking up my skin, the practitioner moved them up and down my back. (This is called walking cups.) I was left to rest with the cups on my back. Once I got up from the table I felt much improved, the heaviness in my chest was gone and I had bright purple suction cup marks along my back, not unlike Gwyneth Paltrow in the photo of her – post cupping. The purple marks didn’t hurt or bother me at all. They disappeared after a couple days along with my cold. Cupping provided relief from my cough and effective treatment of my cold.

To experience cupping yourself search out an acupuncturist in your area or visit our Chinese medicine student clinic.