Getting a knife massage is a deliberate process.
Two days before my appointment, I was told by a staff member at the Ancient Art of Knife Therapy Education Center in Taipei to take a shower in the morning before my massage, washing only from my heart to my toes using warm water and crude salt for 15 minutes. This would help soften stiff muscles and enable the knife massage to hit deeper spots of the body.
She also asked for her my age and a photograph of me, so the center could find the lao shi or “teacher” in Mandarin—as every knife massage therapist here is called—who would be the best fit for me.
It’s safe to say that I’ve never worked this hard for a massage before. But then again, a knife massage isn’t your typical massage with oils and a therapist’s pressure on your knots.
The massage, which is a millennium-old Chinese tradition called dao liao, utilizes two steel knives in order to produce positive and negative ions, just like the Chinese concept of yin and yang, or two opposing forces that make a person balanced. Yin is negative and feminine energy, while yang means positive and masculine energy.
Here, the knives’ edges have been made blunt, fearing they would injure people if not. The electrons made by the knives then stimulate meridians or vital points of your body and pass through your nerves, which are later transmitted to the blood capillary, which would help renew your self-recovery system—or so they say. Knife massage therapy was popular in China’s Eastern Zhou dynasty era from 770 to 221 BC. In that period, people didn’t consult doctors when they fell ill. They turned to knife massage that made use of real knives instead. As dao liao is gaining ground in Taiwan, nowadays many from China enroll at the Ancient Art of Knife Therapy Education Center, where Hsiao Mei-Fang serves as president, as students because the tradition in its birthplace is not as popular anymore.
Kicking off the session, Netty Hsiao, Mei-Fang’s assistant, explained the five meteorite stones on the table in front of me, covered by glass covers. Every night, the massage knives are placed next to these stones to recharge.
I drank a cup of hot water per instructed, before Netty guided my hand to touch one of the stones. I sensed some warmth. Then she told me to drink a second cup, which strangely felt bitter.
“You sleep very late,” she told me as explanation to my bitter aftertaste. You’re not wrong, Netty.
Next, Netty asked me to do two kinds of warm-up exercises. The first was holding two sticks—that had also been recharged near the meteorite stones—and moving both my arms horizontally forward at the same time. I did this with one foot forward, then another, for 25 times each.
The second one was squatting while also holding the sticks 30 times. These exercises were supposed to open the qi or energy doors that enable the energy to get out of and enter the body during the knife massage later. It also helped balance my bones and internal organs.
Afterward, I sat down with Mei-Fang for a consultation of my current health condition in hope of finding out the best treatment for me. I held both of my palms in front of her as she hits the coordinates on her xian tian yi jing—a 5,000-year-old Chinese board that’s based on the Chinese classic text I Ching.
She put her stick on the board in a standing position and then asked me to put my hand above the board to sense the qi coming from it. Again, it felt warm, and she hit some spots on the board quickly. She concluded that my muscles were weak and I didn’t have enough oxygen in my body, which made me get tired easily. She said I needed more calcium to help me sleep, and said that my phone and laptop usage were causing my tired eyes.
She told me to go on jogs and eat lotus seeds to fix my body, then she sent me off to the main part of the session: the knives.
My assigned therapist had me lie on my stomach and covered my body with a blanket. So far, not different with any other massage I had in the past. With soothing music on the background, the therapist then pummeled the knives down my entire body. It was surprisingly relaxing. My body felt warmer as the massage went on, especially my neck and back, and I eventually snoozed.
When I regained consciousness, my eyes, wrist and back felt much lighter. My neck felt less strained. Weight has been taken away from my body. I felt like a reborn baby, as Mei-Fang put it. Was it worth the $50 USD? Absolutely.
Before I left, I asked Mei-Fang what she thought about people’s perception that knife massage therapy is “weird.”
“Others will say about knife massage, ‘What is this? Is this crazy? Is this alien?’” she said. “So I really accept it…He or she may misunderstand knife massage, but I know what I’m doing.”