Burning tube, from Chinese medicine chest, wood/paper, maker unknown, China, c 1925.
This section of bamboo, wrapped in brown paper and fastened with string, was used as an instrument to apply cupping therapy which has been a part of traditional medicine in China for thousands of years. It is a piece from the stem of the bamboo plant, naturally divided into sections, with the internal membrane closing off one end. In the process of cupping the open end of the bamboo section is heated from the inside with fire to create a vacuum and then quickly placed on the afflicted area of the body. The cup is left in place for suction and, depending on how long it is retained, results in the rupture of small blood vessels or capillaries causing bleeding into the skin. Cupping is used to relieve stagnation of Qi or blood and is employed most widely to treat respiratory diseases such as the common cold, pneumonia and bronchitis. It is also used to treat back, neck, shoulder and other musculoskeletal pain
Cupping used to be called 'horn therapy' in ancient times, because the initial tools used were the hollowed horns of domestic animals, such as oxen and sheep. Sometimes a hole would be created in the top of a horn and the air physically sucked out to draw poison from snakebites and evacuate pus from boils and abscesses. This technique is still used therapeutically in the traditional medicine practices of some Asian and African countries. Cupping was first described in ancient Egyptian texts and eventually spread to many ancient cultures of Europe and the Americas. In recent history, cupping was widely used as a medical therapy in Western countries during the 19th century. With the development of technology, cupping sets were introduced using pumps to create the vacuum before the gradual decline of cupping in early 20th century Europe and America.
The Chinese expanded the utilization to include cupping in surgery to divert blood from the surgical site, and in as an auxiliary method of bloodletting for localized afflictions or when the patient was deemed too weak to tolerate direct lancing of the vein. In the practice of 'wet cupping' several incisions were made in the skin before applying the cup in order to draw blood. Gradually various materials, such as bamboo, jade, metal and glass, were used to make cups. Bamboo, given its abundance, light weight and low cost, became the most widely used instrument for cupping during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) when it was the principle treatment for tuberculosis. During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) the uses of the therapy developed as it was integrated with acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine. Nowadays glass cupping instruments are increasingly used so the skin can be observed to monitor the treatment, and cupping remains a standard part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice. The museum also has a set of three glass cups from Northern China in the Health and Medicine collection.
Unschuld, Paul U, Medicine in China: Historical Artifacts and Images, New York 2000, p86
Chirali, Ilkay Zihni, 'Traditional Chinese Medicine: Cupping Therapy', Churchill Livingstone, 1999, p3-20
This bamboo piece for cupping is part of the contents of a Chinese medicine chest held at the Asian Studies Department of the University of Sydney since the late 1950's, and later donated to the Powerhouse Museum in 1994. The chest was among a small collection of Chinese artefacts and medicinal substances related to traditional cultural practices, thought to have been collected in China in the first half of the 20th century by an Australian protestant missionary J. Whitsed Dovey (1887-1956).
Cupping has a long history of use in acupuncture and has been combined with bloodletting. As an alternative to acupuncture to treat stagnation of Qi and blood, cupping can be used when acupuncture needles pose a problem and to treat respiratory and musculoskeletal problems.