Deciphering the Language of the Body in China

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

While living in China, English journalist Poppy Sebag-Montefiore experienced the way strangers touched each other in various situations — on the train, in the market, standing in line. “Touch,” Sebag-Montefiore writes in her essay at Granta, “had its own language, and the rules were the opposite of the ones I knew at home.” She recounts her fascination with all of this touch, and how she set about understanding the way it works and where it came from, before the country’s rapid modernization irreparably changed it. All this physical intimacy offered, in her words, “a direct hit of the love, energy and camaraderie that you get from friendship,” but she also wondered if it had a dark side.

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.

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