Between 1999 and 2007, I lived in China on and off. I worked as a journalist at the BBC bureau in Beijing for some of that time. I wasn’t there for the job; I was there, and the job helped me stay longer. The first story I covered was the launch of China’s first manned spacecraft. We broadcast astronaut Yang Liwei’s message that crackled and fizzed back to Earth: ‘All’s well,’ he said, as he orbited our planet alone. The good lines may have already been taken, but it was 2003 and China was transforming from a socialist into a market economy, from a developing country into a global superpower. Our news cycle turned between the thrills and promises of development and the fallout from such rapid modernisation: pollution; unequal rights for migrant workers in the cities; people beaten when they petitioned the state for compensation over land illegally confiscated and sold off by local officials. It was an epic story, but the lows were distressing. By the end of my time there, I’d interviewed so many people who were in such a state of fear that I began to catch it, and after being detained a couple of times, I was paranoid. I’d check behind my curtains when I got home.

Before reaching that point, I was having my own passionate relationship with China. Just to be awake was to absorb – the language, ways to live – like a baby learns the world. Every day I was touched. Many times, by friends, by strangers, by the lady who swept the street by the courtyard where I lived. By the water sellers, the restaurateurs, by old men playing chess, by people I didn’t know. Most I would never meet again. I was handled, pushed, pulled, leaned upon, stroked, my hand was held. And it was through these small, intimate, gestural moments that I began to get a hold on how macro changes imprinted themselves onto people’s relationships and inner lives.

Touch had its own language, and the rules were the opposite of the ones I knew at home. Beijing’s streets were scenes of countless gestures of touch. If people bumped or rubbed arms as they passed in the street there was no need for an apology, not even a flinch. Strangers would lean their whole body weight against one another in a queue. Everyone seemed to have a certain kind of access to anyone else’s body. Shoppers and stallholders would hold on to each other’s arms as they negotiated with one another. People would pack in together around a neighbourhood card game. In the evening, women would hold each other in ballroom embraces as groups waltzed on street corners.

Touch in public, among strangers, had a whole range of tones that were neither sexual nor violent. But it wasn’t neutral either. At times, yes, you’d be leaned on indiscriminately because of lack of space, or to help take some weight off someone’s feet. Yet other times you’d choose people you wanted to cling on to, or you’d be chosen. You’d get a sense of someone while haggling over the price of their garlic bulbs and you’d just grab on to each other’s forearms as you spoke or before you went on your way. Touch was a precise tool for communication, to express your appreciation for someone’s way of being, the brightness in their eyes as they smiled, their straightforwardness in a negotiation, a kindness they’d shown.

I felt buoyed and buffeted by this touch. I sometimes felt like I was bouncing or bounding from one person to the next like a pinball, pushed and levered around the city from arm to arm. If the state was like an overly strict patriarch, then the nation, society or the people on the streets were the becalming matriarch. This way of handling each other felt like a gentle, restorative cradle at times. At other times all the hands on you could be another kind of oppressive smothering. But usually touch was like a lubricant that eased the day-to-day goings-on and interactions in the city, and made people feel at home.

I wanted to document this unselfconscious touch. To keep hold of it. I could tell that this ease between the bodies of strangers might not survive rapid urbanisation. This touch was so visual, so visible. I freed my camera from the head-and-shoulders interview shot and took it out to the streets.

A few weeks ago I found a tape of video footage that I’d labelled touch i and shot in Beijing sometime between 2005 and 2006. Low sunshine glows pink-gold on people’s faces. An open-fronted clothes shop blasts a techno beat out onto a giant pedestrian street near the centre of the city. There’s a long queue of customers waiting to go inside. My camera is on the closeness between the people standing in this line.

I focus on two men in particular. One is older, perhaps in his sixties. He’s wearing an army-style jacket and grey woolly hat. In front of him is a man probably in his forties; he’s wearing a mauve jacket, spattered with tiny flecks of yellow paint. These two men are leaning against one another. Neither notices particularly. The man in khaki now bashes into the man in mauve several times as he turns to look at how the queue has grown behind him.

They get closer to the front of the queue. I move with them and the music booms louder, a heart pumping, like a soundtrack from the inside of the body amplified onto the street. The man in mauve starts to bop. B-boom, B-boom goes the music, left-to-right goes the man in mauve. Each time he steps to the beat – he’s dancing, he’s keeping warm; he’s standing sideways in the queue – his right arm bumps into the man in khaki’s belly, repeatedly, rhythmically, again and again. The man in khaki doesn’t flinch, he’s welcoming it as much as he doesn’t acknowledge it at all. He’s comfortable. Watching, it now seems to me that it’s impossible that these two men don’t know each other, in fact they must really be quite close: friends, workmates, family even. Most likely they are father and son. Just as I’m about to fast-forward the tape to skip to the next vignette – the two men get larger – I’m approaching them with my camera – their faces fill the frame, and I hear myself ask: ‘Where are you from?’

‘Hebei,’ says the man in mauve.

‘Hubei,’ says the man in khaki.

Hebei means north of the river, and Hubei means north of the lake. These are provinces about six hundred miles apart.

‘How do you know each other?’ I ask.

Their voices overlap:

‘We don’t know each other,’ says the man in khaki.

‘We don’t,’ says the man in mauve.

Up a dingy staircase, above the Lucky House Mini Market on Shaftesbury Avenue in London, there is a traditional Chinese medicine clinic. Dr Fan is in his sixties, he left China about thirty years ago and tells me, when I’m back in London, that this touch I’m describing is a rural way of being together: the touch of peasants. I’ve struggled to find people in Beijing to think about this touch with because it’s so obvious to them they can hardly see it. But Dr Fan tells me, as he pummels the sole of my foot with his knuckles, that intellectuals and the ruling classes have always kept a respectful distance from each other, have always been more self-contained. During the period I lived in China – that time of mass migration and urbanisation – Beijing was a city of villages piled on top of and around each other. Dr Fan said it was true that under Mao everybody did come physically closer to one another. Especially within the sexes, men with men, women with women. Mao sent people from the cities, the ‘educated youth’, down to the countryside to learn from the peasants. Maybe all hands that know each other’s work, know each other.

Touch is an important part of China’s traditional medical practice. Doctors feel their patients’ wrists for six different pulse lines to make a diagnosis. Massage is used for preventative health and as a cure. Pressure points on the skin relate to specific internal organs and touching them releases toxins and reduces inflammation. Once I had stomach cramps on an eleven-hour boat journey from Shanghai to an island in the East China Sea. A lady on the next bunk, whom I’d never met before, took my hand and found the acupressure point that corresponds to the uterus and began to press it for me. Gradually the pain dulled away.

Yang sheng 养生 means ‘nourishing life’. It’s an active pursuit of health through the medical arts – massage, exercise, food. Think wellness – if wellness was less about gym memberships and spirulina shots, and more about a set of ancient ideas for how to cultivate your body’s energy to improve your health and sense of well-being. It’s combined with a fear for your life because of the lack of health-care welfare, and the necessity not to be too much of a financial burden on your one child in your old age. When I lived in Beijing, yang sheng wasn’t so commercially inflected among the older, urban generation. It was a bodily intellect, a tuning-in to the needs of the body: at times carefully considered, at times instinctive and ingrained. It’s what brought people together for ballroom dancing in the evening, and exercising in the park together in the morning.

In many ways this kind of coming together on the streets to attend to the needs of the body felt like a form of resistance to the state, a complicity among people. Although this kind of solidarity may in some ways have been made possible and encouraged by socialism, taken into people’s own hands, it felt like a form of personal autonomy. In a place heavy with censorship, where published and broadcasted words can’t necessarily be trusted, this was a public sphere of the senses, a way to feel one another out. Being together like this was also a way to derive pleasure and vitality from each other, without asking or taking anything from anybody. Instead, it’s a reciprocity, an openness, an attention to a personal need.

I remember the first time my boundaries dissolved to accept the confident, unselfconscious touch of a stranger. I was standing in the audience at a Tibetan Buddhist festival at Labrang monastery in the yellow-grey mountains of China’s north-western Gansu province, and a man, probably in his eighties, came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my waist. I turned round affronted at first, then bemused. He didn’t even look at me but craned his neck over my shoulder towards the show. I saw that his grip around me meant nothing to him but to be able to stand and see without toppling over. He was using my body as if it was part of his. Once I’d checked out whether there might be anything sordid going on, and realised there wasn’t, I remember I couldn’t help but feel delighted by having this man hang on to me. I was a bit ecstatic about it. An elderly man could use my body to help him stand and see. And it was lovely. I made my friend take a photo of us from behind and from the front. My face is beaming. It could be compared to the invigoration you get from standing in front of a painting that you love. But this touch is more powerful: it can happen at any time, often when least expected, and it’s personal – the medium is another living being. It gives you something of Freud’s ‘oceanic feeling’ – when the baby doesn’t know the contours of its own body, before the ego, when it’s one with everything else.

I sometimes wonder if there’s a shadow side to this touch. If the accessibility of everyone’s bodies can be mistaken by those with power as a right to them. Could it be partly why local officials can be quick to hire thugs to beat petitioners as a way to deter them from complaining to the ‘higher-ups’? Does the easiness and informality between people encourage corruptibility among officials, leaning on other leaders to sway them?