Amid the healing herb shops of Taipei’s timeworn Dinhua Street, Man Na Lo and Chen Jung Lee beat blades of steel down customers’ spines. The soothing scents of ginseng and goji berries are periodically interrupted by the sounds of loud belching—the women’s attempt to expel the sick chi that is believed to transfer from the client to the therapists during this process.
Welcome to Taiwan, where massage therapists pummel butcher knives down your back. Don’t fret, the knives are dulled. But if you’re looking for dainty tea tree oils and gentle pampering, this probably isn’t the spa treatment for you. Knife massages, or dao liao, are nothing like your routine rubdown. Instead of firm hands, dao liao therapists wield butcher knives as conductive tools to direct the flow of positive and negative energy in and out of the skin.
“We’re not a religion. We’re not a science. Our practice is about energy, to help people find their positive chi, to touch their soul,” says Hsiao Mei Fong, who owns the Ancient Art of Knife Therapy Education Center in Taipei. While going under the dao liao knife may look downright violent, these massages can be deeply energizing by stimulating circulation and restoring balance back to the body, Hsiao says.
Her hour-long massages start at 1,200 Taiwanese dollars, ($40), and are recommended for treating chronic conditions like arthritis and insomnia. Everyone from a one-year-old to a 100-year-old has stopped by her shop for a knife massage.
Knife massages aren’t a new fad or a masochistic fantasy. The practice of dao liao is rooted in an ancient tradition that dates back more than 2,000 years. According to research out of Taiwan’s Nanhua University, Buddhist monks offered knife massages to the severely ill after more traditional medicinal methods failed to cure them during the Han and Tang Dynasties.
Although the practice fell out of favor in China for unknown reasons, the uncanny tradition still thrives in Taiwan today. Nowadays, you can find highly trained therapists nestled amongst the narrow alleyways of Dadaocheng, the historic heart of Taipei, tenderizing clients just as monks did in imperial China.
Thanks to the explosive popularity of acupuncture and the rise of Chinese Nobel Prize Winner Tu Youyou, the rest of the world is also slowly starting to adopt the millennia-long wisdom of traditional Chinese medicine, according to University of Buffalo Professor Yan Liu, a scholar of historical Chinese medicine. While some modern medical models tend to be reductionist and target specific microscopic cells and germs that afflict the body, Chinese medicine takes a holistic approach.
Practitioners believe that “the life force that not only circulates in the body but also permeates throughout the cosmos,” Liu explains. “Chinese medicine is a big treasure house. We need to take advantage of that.”