Chinese Fire-cupping


HG: “I remember one time, I came home from school and in the living room, I see my grandmother on her back while this random stranger is there. And he has these cups, it’s fire-cupping. It’s a pretty common thing, but at the time I did not know what was going on. The thing with fire-cupping is that you light a fire in the cup and then you immediately pat it on the person’s back and you let it sit there and then you take it off. I think it’s supposed to do some balancing, some sucking out something.”


The informant is a 20-year-old Chinese-American college student from Baltimore, Maryland. They lived with their grandparents in China for a period when they were around six, which is when they saw her doing fire-cupping. HG does not think that their grandmother “goes and sees a doctor in the Western sense,” and described how she tends to her body using traditional Chinese medicine. “She’ll always have a lot of herbs or whatever that are supposed to help you with this, or this, or this. You eat it rather than taking pills or something,” they said.

Fire-cupping has recently become a popular practice for treating pain in Western countries, but when HG first saw their grandmother doing it, they did not understand what it was. The process involves lighting a fire inside a cup to create suction and then placing the cup onto a person’s skin for a few minutes. The process often leaves bruises on a person’s skin. HG recalled that their grandmother told them that fire-cupping did not hurt.


Though practices such as fire-cupping and using herbal remedies could strike people who are used to Western medicine as strange, I understand why their long history of use, natural composition, and transparent impacts make them trustworthy in the eyes of people who use them.With fire-cupping, like many forms of traditional medicine, the person undergoing treatment knows exactly what is happening to their body. Unlike many Western medicinal practices, the effects of fire-cupping on the body are direct and immediately sensory. One feels the cups on their back and sees the marks they leave behind. This may be more comforting than ingesting factory-produced pill comprised of unknown chemicals and waiting to see if and how the body responds. 

I think that a major reason why people trust traditional medicine is that it has been given credibility through generations of practice. People trust the wisdom and practices of their ancestors. Thus, it can be used not only to alleviate ailments, but also as a mode of connecting with one’s familial or cultural past.