24 July 2019
Swimmer Michael Phelps is one of the biggest fans of the ancient Chinese therapy of cupping. Photo: Xinhua
Swimmer Michael Phelps is one of the biggest fans of the ancient Chinese therapy of cupping. Photo: Xinhua

Chinese medicine getting more popular but China not the winner

Those who watched the recently concluded Rio Olympics must have noticed the dark red spots on the shoulders and backs of swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Chris Brooks.

Those red circles were signs that the US athletes had undergone the ancient Chinese therapy of cupping.

Cupping has been used in China for more than 2,000 years, dating back to the Western Han Dynasty.

The process involves placing heated glass cups on the skin along the meridians of the body, thereby creating suction that stimulates the flow of energy.

Western doctors and therapists have come to learn the many benefits of cupping. 

For example, patients have found their shoulder pain much reduced after three months of cupping therapy, according to an article published in the May edition of the Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal.

Another study shows that those with neck pain who underwent therapy for two years have recovered much better than those who did not.

Keenan Robinson, Phelps’ personal trainer, said it was in 2013 when he first saw Chinese swimmers with bright red spots on their skin and started to research on the subject of cupping.

He later introduced the treatment to several US swimmers and many of them found it very helpful in relaxing their muscles and easing pain from strenuous activity. Soon, more swimmers joined, including Phelps.

American gymnast Alex Naddour, who won the bronze in the pommel horse competition in Rio, is another big fan of cupping.

He said cupping provides relief from soreness that results from constant pounding and stretching of muscles and ligaments.

“That’s been the secret that I have had through this year that keeps me healthy,” Naddour told reporters.

“It’s been better than any money I’ve spent on anything else.”

Cupping therapy became a trending topic at the Rio Olympics, and as a result, cupping equipment sales have surged 20 percent while enrollment in cupping therapy courses spiked 50 percent, according to the International Cupping Therapy Association.

The adoption of the cupping therapy by western athletes has made the treatment even more popular worldwide.  

In fact, Chinese medicine is gaining increasing acceptance globally, especially after Chinese scientist Tu Youyou won the Nobel prize for medicine last year for her discovery of artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, which are used for the treatment of malaria.

Sadly, only a few Chinese companies are benefiting from this trend. Instead, Japanese firms have done a far better job in preserving and promoting traditional Chinese medicine.

For example, Tsumura Yakuhin, a Japanese drug company, earns more than 110 bilion yen (US$1.07 billion) a year from Chinese medicine sales.

It’s the world’s largest manufacturer of Chinese medicine, and its best-selling product is xiaocaihu powder, which is used for treating colds.

Even Chinese tourists flock to Japan to purchase Chinese medicine produced there.

That’s because medicinal herbs grown in China have gained the unsavory reputation of being tainted and unsafe as a result of pollution.

Japanese have been growing Chinese medicinal herbs in their own soil.

Also, Japanese firms are known to observe stricter quality control standards than their Chinese counterparts, and this contributes to the popularity of their products.

After all, the medical and pharmaceutical business is all about confidence.

So when is China ever going to catch up?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 31.

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist

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