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Updated: 2014-07-22

Historical records on cupping date back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC), when it was called horn therapy. It gradually developed in the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 420-581), was a Taoist medical practice and was widely used in the courts of Imperial China. In the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618) and the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), the cupping implement was improved, and a bamboo jar replaced animal horns. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), cupping had become a key treatment in traditional Chinese medicine. The present name was coined in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when the jar used began to be made of pottery.

These days most acupuncturists use cups made of thick glass or plastic, although bamboo, iron and pottery cups are still used in some places. Glass cups are the preferred method, because they do not break as easily as pottery or deteriorate like bamboo, and they allow doctors to observe the skin and evaluate the effects of treatment.

Jacques Le Bert, a Frenchman who has studied traditional Chinese medicine in China for five years, says cupping is related to what is called the theory of meridians and collaterals, and is seeing increasing popularity in the West.

Meridians and collaterals are said to "connect different parts of the body into an organic whole, including the viscera, limbs, five sensory organs and nine orifices", Jacques says.

Central to the traditional Chinese medicine philosophy of yin and yang, which represent a range of opposite elements in the universe, are: day and night, cold and hot, slow and fast, quiet and moving, masculine and feminine, water and fire. In general, anything that is warming, moving, rising, bright, progressing, including functional diseases, is said to belong to yang. The characteristics of cooling, stillness, falling, darkness and degeneration, including structural diseases, belong to yin.

"For starters it would be best to view cupping based on its philosophical principle," Jacques says. "Traditional Chinese medicine believes in the balance between yin and yang. These can be translated to positive and negative energies. For example, if too much toxin makes its way into your inner system, it will create enormous disruptions in your body that could lead to sickness. In like manner, if cold air packets have penetrated your muscles nerves, it could cause common sickness and pains."

The Chinese movie Gua Sha Treatment, released in 2001, was a story about cultural conflicts in a Chinese family in the United States, in particular a misunderstanding about traditional Chinese medicine. In the film the grandfather of a child left with scrape marks on his back after treatment for a fever is accused of child abuse.

While scraping and cupping fall under the same theory, cupping is considered relatively painless. It can cause some swelling and bruising on the skin. As the skin under a cup is drawn up, the blood vessels at the surface of the skin expand.


Link: China's Central Government / World Health Organization / United Nations Population Fund / UNICEF in China

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