Cultural Appropriation | Gua Sha

Sandra Lanshin Chiu L.Ac of Treatment by Lanshin and Ivy Lee MSTCM, L.Ac of Luminae Wellness had a fascinating talk about cultural appropriation and Gua Sha on Instagram yesterday. So far, it’s got over 6,800 views.

Listen to their talk.

Gua Sha has been blowing up social media and it seems like every beauty influencer is an expert, sharing all variety of Gua Sha techniques. Is it any surprise when so many people are at home, on the computer, and self-care really is essential? With spas shut down across the globe, many businesses also had to pivot to more online classes and content. Let’s just say that we are all re-organizing and doing our best in these times of mass awakening.

Like TCM practitioners Sandra and Ivy, I too wondered about the accuracy of the information that’s flooding IG. I have recently added Gua Sha and Facial Reflexology to my self-care practice. Doing it properly, understanding the why, honouring the tradition and messengers, and supporting each other are some of my desires.

The idea of cultural appropriation floated more lightly on my mind. Rather than a clearly delineated issue, cultural appropriation is nuanced. It is far too easy to tar people as a triggered reaction and jump on sides. I’m still processing my own thoughts and feelings around this rather complex, especially as I’m rather unfamiliar with Gua Sha myself.

You may have recently read about several non-Chinese American ladies who’ve created Mahjong sets with new and non-Chinese designs. These also come with a hefty price tag. The article Majong Design “Refresh” Reignites Debate Over Cultural Appropriation discusses this fine line between appreciation and appropriation. When are people sharing from love of the culture and when is it really an act of “cultural erasure”, the phrase used by this new Mahjong company in its apology? 

What About Gua Sha?

First, let’s start by clarifying that Gua Sha is part of TCM, though not every Chinese Medicine practitioner offers it or has expertise or experience with it. Gua Sha is one of many tools in TCM to address internal imbalances.

Gua Sha is Gua Sha. The difference between it being done on the face and the body is the pressure and speed. Obviously the touch is much lighter on the face, so that we don’t raise “sha” which is what we see when we bring about more movement of qi. Check out the video below from Sandra – that’s what sha looks like. That is not bruising. As she also points out, this is not a lymphatic drainage method, which denies Gua Sha’s depth and cultural context.

Facial Gua Sha, as well as improving circulation of qi, addresses lines by releasing muscular tension as well as sculpts and shapes. Have you tried it on your neck? Ooh. Learning the proper techniques helps to achieve these results.

My own experience is like that for many Chinese kids. Growing up, when not feeling well, our moms or grandmothers will do Gua Sha on us. And yes, the horrible tasting herbal soups and teas too! My mom uses a porcelain spoon. You can also use a coin or even jar lid!

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Gua Sha was not always so hip and trending as it is now. Ivy, who was a Martin Luther King Jr Scholar and has done work for social justice, talked more about this topic of Gua Sha and cultural appropriation in this video several months ago. She calls out on people who have renamed it and points out how over time traditions and information can get distorted and diluted. She invites people to share their experiences of how TCM and Gua Sha have helped them to raise awareness about practices that were not so long ago ridiculed. Wikipedia recently labeled TCM as pseudoscience.

Here are some of their suggestions for consumers and ideas to contemplate:

  • look for their teachers. Gua Sha is part of a lineage and so this way we know its source as well as a resource to explore further. This is also about honouring traditions and teachers through crediting them. In a world where people want to claim authority and expertise as a way to build their business, this point is salient.
  • learn the proper techniques and any contraindications.
  • support businesses that are transparent and authentic.
  • recognize the colonist mindset in our demand to learn anything without building a relationship or understanding it within its cultural context that is so intertwined in Chinese Medicine, for example.

This issue of cultural appropriation is not about keeping Chinese Medicine for the Chinese. Many of TCM teachers are not Chinese who have embraced the lineage and also culture. It’s about sharing information in its context, raising awareness of another non-allopathic approach to health and wellness, and being respectful.

So you may be wondering what resources they suggest. Yes, I scrolled through all 210 comments on Ivy’s video for these two gems – Dr Ping Zhang, an expert in facial Gua Sha who offers courses for professionals and for one of the commenters based in France, Elaine Ng Huntzinger L.Ac in Paris. Since Elaine uses tools from Cecily Braden I’m going to add Cecily to the list. Of course both Sandra and Ivy share different ways to Gua Sha.

Having said all that, I invite you to energetically feel out who you want to work with and support.