Chinese Massage, Tuina and Acupressure

Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Chinese Massage and manipulative therapy (tuina) uses the acupuncture channels, stimulating the points along them.

It uses the idea of Qi – a concept foreign to Western medicine. Qi is a fundamental concept in Chinese medicine and acupuncture theory.

Every body is, while alive, a repository of this vital ‘Qi’. One of the most important teachings in esoteric Chinese Medical and religious texts is how to guard, and if possible, increase, your store of Qi.

How do you know you’ve got any qi? If you’re reading this, you’ve got it. If you’re dead, you haven’t.

What’s the difference?

The Chinese idea is that if you have life in you, the source of that life is ‘qi’. So, now we’ve settled that …

If you’re ill, what happens to your Qi?

When you’re ill, especially during a chronic illness, your reserves of Qi reduce. Not just that, but your qi gets in a mangle.

The symptoms of that mangle are the symptoms of your disease. Chinese medicine has spent well over 2000 years interpreting symptoms like yours in terms of what they call ‘syndromes of mangled qi’.

Actually they don’t put it quite like that. After 2000 years they’ve become a bit more sophisticated. They’ve introduced a few other sub-categories of mangled qi.

The beauty of the system is that if you know what the diagnosis is, you know what to do. (If you’ve done the training, the spadework, of course. Otherwise it’s manglo-janglo.)


Massage therapy – one form of healing

A healthy person who knows how to do this kind of massage therapy can not only ease the progress of Qi along a sick person’s acupuncture channels, but even transfer some of their own energy to the ill patient, enhancing it.

This isn’t exclusively a Chinese idea: transferring Qi has been an important thread running through Western Healing practice over the centuries.

The difference is that the idea of Qi is vastly expanded into a whole theory of health and disease in Chinese medicine.

A skilled massage therapist can do some remarkable things with his energy. This skill is rare to find in the West, however.

 Read about what happened to one psychologist as he investigated this, in Lawrence LeShan’s wonderful book.

Moving Qi – a story

In Nanjing in 1982 a group of Western doctors, anaesthetists, dentists, acupuncturists, and others watched an old man of 90 who’d been working for many years as the Professor (of what we’d have to call ‘Healing’), put his hand close to (but not touching) one of our colleague’s backs as he sat in a chair.

As the Professor moved his hand backwards and forwards, my colleague swayed back and forth (still without being touched by the Professor’s hand behind him or even knowing it was there.)

What was amazing however, wasn’t just that, but this: sitting in front of our colleague, facing away from both our colleague and the professor, was another of our colleagues. As the Professor’s hand moved forwards and backwards, not only did the first colleague swayed forth and back, but so did the second, in front.

Another curious thing was that because neither knew nor could see what the Professor was doing, they couldn’t understand why the rest of us, watching, were laughing in amazement. And they didn’t realise they were swaying back and forth until we told them, later on.

Now you ask, were robust scientific double-blind randomised placebo controlled tests done on humans to prove this? Sorry. We didn’t know we’d need them, so we just sat there boggling.

Anyway, the point is that much more goes on than Western medicine and science give credit to. One day science will understand these matters: at least I hope so, not least so that those of us who saw these things with our own eyes can stop worrying that we might have been dreaming.

Which has taken us away from Chinese massage, a whole branch of Chinese medical practice that is hardly recognised in the West.



Tuina – Chinese Massage

Tuina is widely used in Chinese hospitals, and beginning to be used here. It is very much more than what in the West we call ‘Remedial Massage’, once called ‘Swedish Massage’. It uses completely different techniques, although one or two seem a little similar. What makes it different is the underlying theory.

That theory says that in health, Qi moves smoothly along the acupuncture channels. When you get ill, its movement is impaired.

Understanding this, the aim is to get it moving properly. A skilled Tuina therapist can do this. That’s what the ancient professor mentioned above was teaching his pupils. But it was also rather more than that, of course.

Like acupuncture, Tuina uses what is called ‘Channel Theory’. Many people of a scientific mind cannot accept channel theory because the channels cannot be seen or X-rayed. In Chinese medicine, along with several other theories like the 5 Elements and the 8 Principles, Channel theory is something that holds it all together and allows it to work. So it’s quite important. 

Many other forms of treatment in regular use and of therapeutic benefit have no accepted scientific proof yet. (How aspirin works wasn’t understood until perhaps the 1970s but that prevented nobody from using it, as herbalists had used it for hundreds of years in its original form, made from the Willow tree.) 

That there is no accepted scientific proof yet doesn’t mean channels don’t exist or work. For more on this, read the page on acupuncture-meridians.



The lesser cousin of tuina is acupressure, which uses pressure, massage and stroking along Chinese acupuncture meridians to move, slow, speed up and strengthen qi. It’s used by acupuncturists during or instead of acupuncture.

Sometimes a treatment just needs a little extra encouragement. In a sensitive patient, just touching or very gently massaging an extra acupuncture point can lift the treatment to a new level.

Shiatsu is a Japanese form of Tuina though very different to it. But a good shiatu session can be very rewarding.


Massage on Children and Infants

Stretch you mind a bit with another of Lawrence LeShan’s books: Landscapes of the Mind..


person holding baby feet - massage on children
Acupressure is really effective on children, the qi of whom is easily moved – and easily damaged, but whose qi also recovers faster than that of adults, given the right nudge.

And simple acupressure techniques can be taught to the parents, opening them to greater involvement in the health of their children.

What’s more, children (who usually love to be touched and stroked) soon start returning the favour to their parents.

So everyone strokes everyone else, spreading pleasure and health.

Just think, chimpanzees have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years! It’s an art human families must recover.

Hot Stone Massage

selective focus photography of seven stacked stones

Is tuina the same as hot stone massage? No! They are quite different.

But using warmth, either from a warm towel, or a warm shower, or from moxibustion or hot stones, helps to ease the body and make the qi more amenable to tuina.

And if all this further reading has been a little stressful, then you need to read my book Qi Stagnation – Signs of Stress – see below!

Other pages you may be interested in:

Jonathan Brand colours

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2 Responses

  1. Hello,

    After reading your website, I applied many of your recommendations and my health really got better. About acupressure, if we do circles over an acupunture point, is the direction (clockwise, counterclockwise) matters?

    Thanks a lot for your help.

    1. A good question!

      There are different opinions on this – which means that there probably isn’t a definitive answer!

      However, to make sense of it I try to apply yin-yang theory. A light touch/stroke (whatever the direction) is nearly always stimulating whereas deep pressure is more painful and deals with more painful conditions. If the patient is weak or old, go light, if younger and has more vitality, deeper may work better. If doing massage, the direction along the channel becomes important.

      Each of those statements could do with amplification! I suggest you take classes in shiatsu if you can find them.

      Thanks for contributing the question – Jonathan

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