Chinese Massage: Dichotomy Between Pleasure & Pain

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.”

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.

kiwinki 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!”

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.

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.”

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.

Sign up to receive news and updates!

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Frank DiCesare
    November 7, 2011

    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.

    • Leah Travels
      November 7, 2011

      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.

  • Patrick
    November 7, 2011

    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.

    • Leah Travels
      November 7, 2011

      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.

  • Jean Wethmar
    November 7, 2011

    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

    • Leah Travels
      November 7, 2011

      Thanks, Jean. I can’t believe she scrubbed your skin off! Oh my! Talk about painful. I know what you mean about beauty knowing no pain. We women have it rough. 🙂

      • Luke
        December 31, 2022

        I’ve recently had a few Chinese massages….this article is RIGHT ON POINT!!! Hurts so good!!! It is certainly not a “relaxing” massage!!!

  • Sabrina
    March 27, 2012

    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 🙂

    • Leah Travels
      March 27, 2012

      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.

    • Tanyapowers
      December 19, 2019

      Hi I just recently went in for a foot massage and entailed a whole body massage- I enjoyed not one bit of it and the worst part is the person who is giving the massage was hacking and coughing all over me the whole time and continue talking to I think his mother in their native language laughing and joking the whole time I was there I’m so sore today and his two days later this was a complete nightmare ‼️

  • Dominik
    January 18, 2014

    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?? 🙂

  • Andrea
    January 29, 2015

    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!

  • Stephanie
    March 3, 2016

    Hahaha, I feel yeah.. I had couple of Chinese massage and it is painful.. I thought I’ll get use to it but I didn’t.. Lol but I learned that Chinese massage is good for health maintenance as well as healing. The method was fostered by Chinese doctors in their long struggle against disease. It is based on traditional Chinese medicine theories of Qi, blood, visceral organs, meridians, and collaterals, and is characterized by more than 20 commonly used manipulations and techniques. It includes pressing, rolling, pushing, grasping, kneading, vibrating, chopping, pinching, pulling, rubbing, and to name but a few. These techniques can be used individually or combined together. They are applied on specific acupuncture points, meridians, muscles, and skin areas with different parts of the palms and fingers and varying degrees of force. Chinese massage technique is intended to focus on the Qi rather than just using brutal force.

    So if u really in pain , I think it’s nice to get a Chinese massage.

  • Loulou
    April 11, 2016

    I love Chinese massage “foot massage”. It makes me sad when people mock other cultures’ basic rituals. It’s cheap and no one is greatful for that.

  • Jolene
    July 8, 2017

    I recently had a Chinese massage in London. I had gone to the same place a week prior with two totally different results. A part of me still whimpers days after the second massage. I was TORTURED. I was desparate to get rid of the shoulder pain I have been living with for the past year and left all my rational thinking outside the massage room. I got to thinking this woman hated me. I was outright crying and telling her it hurt. Thing to keep in mind is, I do like a deep tissue massage. I can handle tough. I was almost vomiting from the pain. I’m ashamed to say that I stayed the whole hour and that I paid for it. Is this type of massage normal – really? I’m battered and bruised. And, my pain is not gone!! Doh!

  • Kat
    March 5, 2018

    Omg I had to take several breaks whilst reading this article to wipe away the tears. I was laughing so hard! Chinese massage it is a love hate!

  • Kathy
    April 29, 2018

    I had my second or third Chinese massage yesterday. I thought it was a little painful the first couple of times but now my whole back hurts after this guy dug his elbows into me. I just feel like crying now. Part of me thinks he dug up something that’s got to be released like a toxic hangover but the rest of me is wondering if I should call my western doctor and get checked out in the morning. I thought your blog was funny and also helpful. Now tell me – why keep going back??!

  • Leni
    February 26, 2019

    My 28 year old son and I had a Chinese massage two days ago. The pain was excruciating. We laugh that we pay to be tortured . This is my son’s back the day after the massage. This is why I’m on this site, to see if this is normal. I have to admit that we always go back because the end results are relaxed muscles.
    I tried to post a picture of his back but can’t. It is bruised on both sides of his spine. They went a bit too far this time. I haven’t seen my back yet but it does seem like it’s bruised. I’ll probably be back. I guess I am also a bit of a masochist.

  • Hannah
    June 6, 2019

    This is so me both yesterday and today. I live and work in China, and went to have a back massage yesterday. Part of me thought, “If I am every tortured to share secrets, then I wouldn’t last long before giving them away.” It hurt so bad! But, like you said, in a slightly good way. Today, I feel like I did a bunch of back workouts yesterday. My back feels so sore and bruised. Thanks for sharing your story and helping me understand I am not the only waiguoren who experienced these feelings during a Chinese massage!

  • Pamela Anslow
    August 11, 2020

    I had Chinese massage last week on arms and back. Fine I went again next day and she insisted on touching my legs as well. I have been in agony since. Can’t walk without a great deal of help – 2 people this morning. Legs feel like are getting electric shocks

  • Misty
    January 6, 2021

    I googled chinese massage…. Never ever again. I don’t see the benifit in this it all, it didn’t work with my pain or muscles or anything, just felt like I was getting beat up. No real benifit whatsoever. This is a wierd old patriarchal form of massage that is insane.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers

Have the world delivered to your inbox
Well, maybe not the whole world, but some of it. Either way, subscribe to my newsletter for news from Paris and wherever else the road takes me.