Once regarded as mere pampering, spa treatments can provide concrete health benefits, especially for conditions that stress exacerbates, like a bad back or a chronic headache. The health benefits of relaxation and recuperation frequently result in improved immune response and accelerated recovery that can reduce the cost of more serious illnesses. Spas, therefore, should most certainly be considered a form of medical treatment, if a highly enjoyable one, and spas in China’s are some of the best.
Chinese "spa" culture stretches back thousands of years. During the Han Dynasty, the upper classes frequented steam baths and hot springs, and doctors prescribed baths to treat various ailments, including baths full of small fish that nibble away dead skin.
More than 150,000 bath houses of different sizes are in operation today. But there’s still a big difference between the traditional Chinese bath house and a modern spa. While bath houses predominate, the Chinese luxury spa industry is still in the development phase.
"In Bangkok, almost every three, four, or five-star hotel has a spa. But this is rare in China," said Ratthamon Rungrueang, a consultant for Zen, a top-end spa located in a courtyard in the South of Beijing. There is still no national spa association, common in other countries, to license spas or therapists.
Soaking up Chi
While most Chinese spas subscribe to Western medical ideas, many also have a specialist in Chinese medicine on staff. Zhou Zhimei, a therapist at Long Island Massage & Spa in Beijing, has 10 years of experience and works with customers who select Chinese therapeutic treatments from their menu.
"We view the body as a complete system," said Zhou. "Many of the clients we see have lower back problems. But this is not necessarily a problem of the waist; it might be a problem with the body as a whole." Treatment aims at preventing diseases by attacking the root cause of the problem, as opposed to the symptoms. "For example, when one is angry, it can affect the stomach, so we work on relaxing the stomach, as opposed to just treating the pain," said Zhou.
Many of the spas that offer Chinese Traditional Medicine mix it in with other Asian traditions, like Tibetan, Thai, and Balinese, for their massage packages. The design of CHI Spa, located in the Shangri-La hotel in Beijing, evokes a Tibetan temple; CHI Spa stresses its roots in traditional Chinese and Himalayan medicine.
"Balance is one of the fundamental principles of Chinese medicine. Therefore, all CHI treatments are designed to restore balance and re-energise the mind and body," said Arthur Wang, director of the CHI Spa. One of their treatments is the Jetlag Relief, described as an immersion in a "hydrotherapy tub filled with aromatic CHI essential oils, followed by a massage to stimulate the lymphatic drainage," in order to relax the muscles and "relieve fatigue associated with traveling."
Spas focus on treating ailments that arise from what Wang terms "sub-health conditions," problems exacerbated by stressful living. Oriental Taipan, a spa with locations all over Beijing, offers a Hot Stone Aromatherapy that supposedly clears a blocked lymphatic system, improves blood circulation, and elevates metabolism. Zen Spa will deep-cleanse your skin with ground tsampa flour combined with pure essential oils, while Dragonfly, a spa chain with more than 20 branches nationwide, provides an aroma oil massage. Dragonfly recommends lavender oil; the oil is "perfect for treating insomnia; it is sedative and calming for the emotions and mind."
"We want our guests to relax naturally," explains Kelly Wu, Spa Manager of the St Regis Beijing. The St Regis spa uses mellow lighting, candles, calming music, and, yes, lavender to calm guests.
As luxurious as spas may be, their prices are still far cheaper than surgery. Oriental Taipan, whose slogan is "Luxury is not expensive, it is priceless," charges RMB438 (US$63.50) for 90 minutes of hot stone aromatherapy.
More affordable Dragonfly offers clients a "five-star experience at a three star price." Their aroma oil massage is only RMB225 for the hour. CHI, one of the fanciest, charges RMB2,030 for the two-and-a-half hour Jetlag Relief package.
The economic downturn has affected spas as well. "I’ve definitely seen a drop in customers from this year to last," said Zen Spa’s Rungrueang. "There are a lot less foreigners because there seems to be less business travel, but we still get approximately the same amount of Chinese. Before, people came to celebrate business success. Now they are exhausted and need to be helped."
Angie Sung owner of AG & Co, a firm that distributes oils to many Beijing spas, said that business has dropped about 20-30% since last year.
Treatments are limited to certain conditions. "If someone has high blood pressure, there is a limit to the temperature of water that they can soak in," said Rungrueang. "This is a problem for some Chinese people, who want to soak in water as hot as possible."
Oriental Taipan reminds its customers who have high blood pressure, heart conditions, or are pregnant to first consult a doctor, and to make sure the therapist is aware of their condition.
St Regis Spa’s Wu is a bit more direct. "If you want to heal diseases, go to a doctor," she said.