Chinese Massage: Dichotomy Between Pleasure & Pain
Leah Walker November 7, 2011

The words “pleasure” and “Chinese massage” should never be used in the same sentence. Unless it’s, “It would be my pleasure to torture you with a Chinese massage.”

kiwinki via Flickr

The concierge at my hotel in China sent me to Rocks Massage. After struggling with understanding the Chinese lady in charge, a young man stepped in with some translation. I could get 100 minutes of “pampering” for 100 RMB, which is about $16 dollars. I was told it was “very nice.” OK…sold!

I was asked to take off my shoes and given rubber slides for the trip upstairs. There was a series of closed doors with “Do Not Disturb” signs hanging from hooks. I was led to a room with a massage table and pink teddy bear pajamas in plastic laid out for me. My pajamas were labeled large…maybe a kids large! Somehow I squeezed into them, and my masseuse came back into the room. He couldn’t have been any older than 22.

Cry of pain
fmgbain via Flickr

He brought in a large wooden bucket with a plastic bag liner filled with warm water and fragrant salts. I sat on a small stool with my feet in the water; this was going to be wonderful, I thought. My masseuse began rubbing on my neck, shoulders and upper back. Heaven. I didn’t realize he was just warming me up for the REAL massage.

I’m not sure of my masseuse’s name; they were all given numbers. Mine was 47.

47 spoke some English. He told me “relax,” “is pressure ok,” “lay down.” I had a feeling that he wouldn’t understand, “Holy crap! This hurts like hell you savage brute!”

Art of Pain

After a series of elbows and knuckles to my tension balls and karate chops to my shoulder blades, 47 asked me to lie down on the bed. The lights dimmed, and he began rubbing my feet. It started off nice and soothing, but quickly turned into his knuckle cutting into the arch of my foot like a butcher going after a side of beef. Fearless and violent. Surely with this pain must come some pleasure, I thought.

After working on my feet for about 25 minutes, 47 then went on to my face. Maybe this was where he would solve all my problems just by pressing on a part of my skull. Massaging my temples, running his fingers across my brow bones, and mashing on my jaw all felt wonderful. I was a bit shocked when his fingers went into my ears. Gross for him, but I just went with it. When 47 was done with my face, he rubbed my head like an eager hairstylist. Without abandon, 47 scrubbed my scalp and inadvertently left me with static and teased hair that a Texas beauty queen would envy.

Electric hair
tworm via Flickr

Next was my back. This is the part of a “normal” massage that I love most. THIS was not a normal massage. This was a Chinese massage, where pain equals pleasure…eventually. The elbows, knuckles, and probably nun chucks came out. I wanted to cry out in pain, but I was subdued by the head massage. I felt as if I were an elephant with a tranquilizer dart in my neck. I wanted to scream, but couldn’t muster a peep. I knew our 100 minutes should’ve been coming to an end shortly; there was light at the end of the tunnel. After one last elbow to the shoulder blade, 47 left my room without saying a word. He didn’t offer me water or tell me to get dressed. I felt so used.

I managed to dress and stumble downstairs. I paid my 100 RMB, snuck 10 RMB to my dungeon master, and limped out the door. I believe my exact words were “ABSOLUTE TORTURE.”

jball359 via Flickr

The next day I felt like I had been beaten with a lead pipe. I paid about $22 for 100 minutes of one of the most painful things I have experienced. Ohhh, but it hurt so good.

Before I even THINK about having another one of these massages, I will learn how to say, “Not so freakin’ hard” in Chinese.

Leah Walker

Leah's a luxury travel and food writer who has as many stories as she does shoes. She documents her experiences whether that's in the lap of luxury or riding through a swamp in an airboat. Leah freelances and has contributor/editor roles with The Daily Meal, The Daily Basics, Bonjour Paris, Luxe Beat Magazine, Four Seasons Magazine, Forbes Travel Guide, and is a travel ambassador for Atout France USA. Leah's thrilled to call Paris home after being awarded the coveted three-year Compétences & Talents visa from France, though her talents don't extend to speaking French. Yet.


  1. Great piece, Leah. I particularly like your allusion to “nun chucks.” Funny as hell. All I could think of was, “The nun chucks erasers at her homeroom students.” They’re called nunchucks in the U.S. In Asia, however, they’re known as nunchaku. Bruce Lee was a master of the nunchaku.

    1. Thanks, Frank. Leave it to you to work in some sort of movie allusion into your comment. I think 47 enjoyed torturing me. I could see him smiling through my tears. What a sick bastard. Ha! I guess he was taking out all his anger on my body. One day I’ll write about my Thai massage in Singapore. It’s a wonder I ever get them after all my crazy experiences.

  2. Oh, this brings back memories from the Chinese foot massage I got. I specifically remember thinking “Why are her knuckles in my back? Do I need to tell her that’s not where I keep my feet?” My friends were saying how relaxing it was and I was just waiting for it to be over. I don’t understand massages.

    1. I laughed so hard about your feet comment! I went in thinking I was only going in to have my feet massaged as well. I couldn’t imagine 100 minutes of feet rubbing, and it turns out, I was right. I was stupid enough to go back two times in one week. Can you imagine? It hurt so good.

  3. Well written Leah.. eina.. I know the feeling when you think to yourself.. ‘why did I pay for this torture!.. softly, softly.. I had a massage once in Cambodia.. a body scrub that when she started it stung..?.. I said no, no.. but she carried on.. afterwards.. she’d taken off skin! gosh.. beauty knows no pain!! huh?.. but have I stopped having massage treatments?.. hardly!!! Thanks for this jolt in memory.. you’re a great writer! – hugs – Jean.. :0

  4. Hahaha! Yes, a Chinese massage is pretty painful. The first few “foot massages” I got I really didn’t enjoy because I was scared/embarrassed to speak up and tell them to take it easier. I finally realized that I’ll never see these people again. And “aaaaauuuaaaa” is pretty universal. I can communicate that even without speaking Chinese :)

    1. The screaming is so true! I made the mistake of doing two, hour and a half massages within a week of one another. I felt like I’d been in a car wreck. I’ll do it again, as I’m sure you will as well. We’re gluttons for punishment.

  5. Hi everybody,
    I feel that need to share my experience with you guys :). I’ve just come back from my first Chinese (in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) foot massage (I’m considering that could be the last one :)). I went there because one of my colleagues said he visited this place a few days ago and it was so relaxing and pampered. Fortunately I took 40 min. foot massage and 20 minutes shoulders and head massage. Unfortunately the first part was really painful. I think the nicest wast at the beginning when I had my feet in the warm water in a bucket (obviously with a plastic bag liner :)). Than she started all of the job…. After 10 min. I was still thinking it has to be nicer in so moment … but nothing like that has happen.
    When I’ve come back to the hotel room, I’ve started surfing the internet and before I open this website, I’ve found sth like that:
    “The massage is often painful, particularly for first timers because it is believed that each part of the foot is connected to a part of the body. If soreness is felt in a particular part of the foot, it is believed the corresponding part of the body has a problem” :).
    Damn it – I have problem with all parts of my body?? :)

  6. I have stumbled on to your article as I was googling “is it normal to feel pain after a Chinese massage” ….I had one today thinking it would help rub some stiffness out of my left glute and I’m writting this lying on the couch feeling like someone has taken to my lower back with a baseball bat. Expecting fragrant creams and warm soothing hands you can imagine my surprise when this tiny Chinese lady speared right through my back with a hot branding iron – well elbow actually. Despite my protests she kept going and even thwarted my attempts to get off the table and escape by slapping me back down with a scolding and persistent claim she “would fix me” . Just when I thought it was over she swapped sides and it started again. By this stage I’d broken out in a sweat (possibly brought on by the imagined permanent paralysis I was now going to have to live with) and my eyes were watering and stinging from the makeup that had melted into them. To top this off I felt nauseous and the cramp building in my tummy convinced me I was about to loose control of my bowels. Without doubt the most horrendous lunchtime experience ever!

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