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More Than a Foot Rub:
The Ancient Art of Reflexology

by Johnson Elfman


"I've given a million ladies a million foot massages, and they all meant something." Vincent Vega, Pulp Fiction

You walk on them, dance with them, pedal, brake and accelerate with them. The feet seem like two lumps of flesh and bone whose job description within the body corporate is simply transportation. Western medicine sees the foot merely as a machine composed of 26 bones, 56 ligaments and 33 joints. To a practitioner of the traditional Chinese art of foot reflexology however, the condition of whole body is affected by the sole. They believe each organ in the body is connected to a specific reflex point on each foot through an intermediary of 300 nerves. By a precise and skillful manipulation of these points, vital functions can be stimulated, toxins eliminated, blood circulation improved and nerves soothed. In short, top to bottom well-being is available through the foot.

This may sound like a Chinese superstition, but foot massage was also recognized for both its diagnostic and curative properties in other ancient cultures. Archaeologists have found cave drawings in Egypt depicting the connection between points on the foot and internal organs. To the ancient Egyptian physician, the human body was a 'symphony of vibrations,' with the internal organs making up an intricate orchestra. Manipulating certain points on the feet, they contended, would cause these organs to be 'played' correctly. In China, the earliest known documentation of reflexology dates back to the fourth century BC, when it was practiced in conjunction with acupuncture by a doctor name Wang Wei. Although driven underground in China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and long considered of doubtful benefit in the West, foot reflexology is again being recognized both in China and abroad as an extremely useful medical technique.

Any properly trained reflexologist should be able to diagnose basic maladies after a few minutes at the feet of the patient.

Today, both in China and the West, foot reflexology is again being taught at traditional medical universities, making a regular routine of foot massage or zudi anmo both accessible and affordable.

With this in mind, I walk out on my own overworked feet to try and find a reputable place to get a genuine foot massage in Beijing. "Anmo"Mandarin for massageis a word with an unusually wide range of meanings, so I need to be wary of encountering a 'masseuse' intent on working on the wrong chakras. Real masseuses do not usually solicit customers on the street, and their places of work resemble doctor's rooms rather than motel honeymoon suites. But foot massage is not just any old massage. Reflexology studios are indicated with the characters ד׃ (zudi anmofoot massage) or ד(zuliaofoot treatment).

Many large hotels in Beijing have reflexology clinics, although they are usually on the expensive side. Close to the China World Trade complex is a reputable venue specializing in reflexology called Tianhe Zuliao. Massage is always something that needs to be studied, practiced and perfected, and reflexology is a specialized form. The masseurs at Tianhe Zuliao are all schooled specifically in reflexology (as opposed to deep tissue, shiatsu or other holistic healing arts). The first three months of their studies involve studying the reflexology points of the hands and feet, and their relations to the corresponding internal organs. Apprentices then go through a period of hands-on training, working alongside experienced foot masseurs.

They take their profession seriously. While one of the benefits of a good foot massage is a general feeling of relaxation, reflexology is quite an exact science with larger goals than half an hour of physical well-being. Reflexologists must be schooled in applying pressure in precise locations to best aid patients. Specific areas of discomfort on the foot tell the masseur a great deal about the health of the patients internal organs.

When I arrive at Tianhe Zuliao, the first thing I endure is a long foot bath in a wooden tub filled with a mixture of hot water and various fragrant herbs. I ask the masseuse what the secret mixture contains. She just smiles and tells me that it is secret. "Traditional Chinese herbs, 27 of them, I think," she tells me. After a long soaking punctuated by repeated additions to the infusion of very hot tea-like mixture in the tub, my soles are ready to meet their masseur.

That should be masseuse. Ms. Gao, like most of the masseuses at Tianhe Zuliao, is from Henan Province and graduated from a famous Henanese school of massage. The session begins with the hands, Ms. Gao's own skillful hands working over various points on mine. This is only a preliminary, as most of the healing work conducted here will be on the feet. Any properly trained reflexologist should be able to diagnose basic maladies after a few minutes at the feet of the patient. On my first visit, I decide to put my own masseuse to the test.

"I've had a minor bit of discomfort in my body recently," I tell her. "Just by working on my feet you should be able to tell what it is, right?"

Ms. Gao demurs slightly, telling me that nothing is 100 percent accurate, but that she'll do her best. Some reflexology practitioners follow the theory of yin and yang, begining on the right side for men, and the left for women. Other practitioners consider this a superstition, beginning on the left (heart) side regardless of the patient's gender. Regardless, organs on the right correspond to their reflex points on the right foot, and organs on the left to the left foot.

My own masseuse belongs to the more modern school of thought, and begins on the left side with an energetic thousand-beats-a-minute assault on my inner calf. This is far closer to a regular muscle massage than anything else, and is merely a preliminary before Ms. Gao goes on to my soles. As soon as she sees the bottom of my feet, she makes the following observations:

"You've recently changed something in your life, and this has put stress on your lungs." "You aren't sleeping enough, and when you do sleep you are dreaming about your work." She is correct on both counts. I came to Beijing recently after an extended stay in a place with clean air, and overtime work has recently been a big part of my dreams and waking life. I am impressed, but it gets better. About 20 minutes into the massage of my left foot, Ms. Gao is using her thumb to stroke the line leading from over my arch to under my ankle. I suddenly yelp in pain.


"Ah, I see," she says matter-of-factly "You've recently had an infection of the bladder."

She has discovered my mystery ailment, an infection picked up from too many long bus trips with no bathroom breaks. When I tell her that she has passed the test, she remains silent and continues working. But there is no doubt about her facial expression: "Of course, I'm a professional." My doubts about the validity of reflexology as a diagnostic tool are gone. But what about its power to cure?

Like most Eastern medical techniques, reflexology concentrates on treating the whole person rather than just the symptom of one particular ailment. Western medicine promises speedy relief of all unpleasant symptoms at the drop of a pill, but this method is used to strengthen the body holistically over a series of visits, and to maintain the natural balance of the body. Not everybody believes this but even the most skeptical patient would find it difficult to deny the reflexology's tremendous capacity for stress reduction. Being in a comfortable barcalounger having your feet massaged does wonders for a tired body, and that alone is worth the price of admission.

There's more to it than simple relaxation. Practitioners and enthusiasts of foot massage believe it can cure not only colds and minor ailments, but more serious maladies as well. One former patient I speak to tells me that he started experiencing serious kidney problems in his early forties. Allopathic medicine would probably treat the problem with expensive and invasive surgery, so he decided to see a professional reflexologist instead. He describes the two-month treatment that he underwent as 'intensely painful,' as the practitioner was forced to dig deep to undo years of physical neglect. However, at the end of the treatment, he found that all symptoms of his ailment had disappeared. Reflexologists and their devoted patients tell dozens of similar stories.

Foot reflexology, like much of what is considered to be 'alternative medicine' in the West, has gone through various stages of acceptance from the traditional medical community. While once scoffed at as superstition by Western medicine, reflexology is now being looked at in a more favorable light by both the medical community and the public. A session of foot reflexology in San Franciscoprobably the world center of alternative medicinecosts US$40-100. While life in Beijing might be less convenient in the way of access to Western medicine, traditional medicines which are costly in the West are affordable and easily available in here. A 90-minute session at Tianhe Zuliao costs 138, but there are various membership plans that make it even cheaper to go there as a regular customer. And whether you go for some zudianmo as a convert to foot massage or a non-believer seeking pedal pleasure, remember the oft-repeated New York folk maximWhen you feels, you heals!


Beijing Tianhe Liangzi Healthy Co. Ltd.
Jinzhiqiao Building, 1A, Jianguomenwai Avenue, Chaoyang District φײ̠޼ ؋٫Ւۇ1ƫۦ
Tel: 6506-4466 x 6087, 6506-4466 x 6085


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