Gua sha: the story behind face stones and jade rollers
Massage your face daily with a jade roller or face stone, and you can skip the facelift – so go the words of beauty wisdom. But what can gua sha really do and where does it come from?
Touted by influencers and self-care enthusiasts around the globe as an anti-ageing miracle, gua sha is currently the next big thing in the world of beauty. The treatment relies on using a jade roller or face stone to relieve tension, strengthen muscles and even tighten the contours of the face. What remains on closer inspection, however, are dubious promises made by the beauty industry as well as a deeply misunderstood treatment method of traditional East Asian medicine (TEAM). But let’s start from the top. What exactly is gua sha and what are its origins?
Scratch, scrape, massage
Gua sha, pronounced gwashah, is known under several names depending on the region of Asia. In Vietman, for example, it’s known as «cao gió» and in Indonesia as «kerikan». Gua sha is a treatment that stems from East Asia. It relies on rubbing the skin with the back of a spoon or other object (gua) until it turns red or even blue (sha). The concept is similar to that of acupuncture: the skin, being the biggest organ and containing a network of energy streams throughout the fascia, or muscles, can be freed of blockages through scratching and scraping. The renowned U.S. scientist and author Arya Nielsen has been researching gua sha for over 40 years. In «The Science of Gua Sha» (2012), she describes how it promotes circulation as well as its anti-inflammatory effects and its demonstrable influence on a number of ailments such as back pain or chronic migraine.
How gua sha came to the West
The practice can be dated back as far back as 2,000 years with origins in Traditional East Asian Medicine. Like so many ancient treatment methods, gua sha probably found its way to Europe via important trade routes, such as the Silk Road, Nielsen writes in «Gua Sha: A Traditional Technique for Modern Medicine» (2012). In one of the initial translations, the word «sha» even stood for cholera or malaria. In the early 19th century, the treatment was used during the cholera outbreak to treat cholera-like symptoms. To this day, gua sha is still used in Traditional East Asian Medicine to reduce fever.
From cholera to facial treatment: cultural appropriation?
Massaging your face with a face stone or jade roller today is quite far removed from all that, not least because gua sha is traditionally not used on the face at all, but the body. Does this fall under cultural appropriation? Cultural appropriation is when one ethnic group or culture adopts cultural influences from another ethnic group. This happens all the time – think dreadlocks or yoga. What matters is whether the cultural origin of the practice is respected and the culture is given recognition for it.
This hardly happens in the widespread use of gua sha. While the beauty industry reduces the millennia-old practice to a facial massage tool, mainstream Western medicine scoffs at its philosophy of energy streams and its holistic view of the body. Social media channels are flooded with videos of influencers using the colourful face stones to «massage their faces to slimness». «Scratch» and «scrape» turns into «stroke» and «lift» because it sounds better – and is a way of obfuscating the fact that gua sha is neither a miracle cure nor code for eternal youth. In doing so, we overlook what gua sha can really do and what it really is. Namely, a traditional East Asian medicine treatment with a history of success spanning thousands of years.
1: Nielsen, A. (2012): The Science of Gua Sha. A Publication of Pacific College of Oriental Medicine. The 24th Annual Pacific Symposium Issue: 1,28,30. San Diego, CA, p
2: Nielsen, A. (2012): Gua Sha: A Traditional Technique for Modern Practice. Second Edition. S. 2-10Titelbild: unsplash.com/@contentpixie
I'm a sucker for flowery turns of phrase and allegorical language. Clever metaphors are my Kryptonite – even if, sometimes, it's better to just get to the point. Everything I write is edited by my cat, which I reckon is more «pet humanisation» than metaphor. When I'm not at my desk, I enjoy going hiking, taking part in fireside jamming sessions, dragging my exhausted body out to do some sport and hitting the occasional party.