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Is China's new age disorienting the Orientals?

With the exit of the "gang of four," a new age dawns in China. The intellectuals are coming back from their years of exile and labor on the farms. Women are wearing makeup, and bright blouses bloom under Mao jackets. "Experts" are being rehabilitated. People on the streets will speak openly to foreigners. And Orville Schell is worried.

Sure, he enjoys the chance to finally make friends in this country that always viewed him as a dangerous barbarian, and wouldn't allow him or any other ardent China scholars to visit until 1975. Even then, the privilege of visiting was a dubious one.

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"In the back streets of China's less cosmopolitan cities," he writes in the introductory chapter of his book "Watch Out for the Foreign Guests! China Encounters the West" (New York: Pantheon. $8.95) "I would sometimes see mothers protectively grab their children as I passed."

The title of the book is taken from a similar incident. An old woman, burrowing through a crowd with her head down, ran into Mr. Schell by mistake and was sharply reminded by his tour leader to "Watch out for the foreign guests!" She looked terrified and scrambled away.

She wasn't the only one who was watching out. Contact with the West was thought to be bad for one's Maoist thought and dangerous to one's reputation and career. Even people he met under the auspices of his guides refused to see him socially later.

But not any more. Today's China is just not like the sober, hard-working, ethnocentric stronghold Schell grew to love from afar in the stacks of Harvard's Yenching Institute and as a "foreign guest." Now people walk up to him in public squares, or ride up on mopeds, and tell all about the trials of living under the "gang of four" and practice their English on him.

He is delighted and, what's more, he's good at talking to them. They open up to him, and he makes their tales into little vignettes. Reading "Watch Out for the Foreign Guests!" we meet several interesting citizens: a ne'er-do- well People's Liberation Army member Schell met in a bar called the Peace Cafe; an elderly man who was once jailed for being counterrevolutionary, and a lovely, loquacious young woman in the standard gray jacket who nonetheless wants to be a fashion designer, and who tells all about her trials working on a farm in Mongolia and living in a mud hut.

His excitement at finally being able to talk to these people is contagious, especially in the account of his wanderings around Peking's parks and streets with the young woman, Ling Mulan, which has the added interest of a certain romantic flavor. The episodes in China are interspersed with pieces on Deng Xiaoping's trip to the United States.

Schell's writing has a sharp bite. He doesn't so much pass judgment as keep his eyes open, producing a choice detail that opens up a whole vantage point on what's going on.It's entirely his own view, but he has a way of getting you to peer over his shoulder.

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Deng Xiaoping, he writes, as if in passing, "reminds me somehow of an Indian papoose." Very funny, but wait: "His smallness and his almost endearing way of cocking his head to one side and pursing his lips together when listening make it difficult to remember that Deng is a man of power and guile. As one looks at him, it is impossible to imagine that while he goes through his paces before us, he is actually planning an invasion of Vietnam."

Fang Yi, the minister of science and technology, visits Disneyland. Schell watches, noticing that under his Mao jacket the sleeves of a brown homemade sweater show at the cuffs, "suggesting an ambience totally at odds with this capital of American technology."

The message is there, in no uncertain terms, as "suddenly, a flotilla of Walt Disney characters materializes. Goofy, Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, and a donkey surround Fang as if he were the sacrificial object in a pagan rite. They prance and twist in circles around him, their bulbous heads bobbing in time to the music."

Has East ever met West so ominously?

And in China, nothing could illustrate the underbelly of China's Western yearnings better than the Peace Cafe, hangout of Wang Zhaomin, a soldier in the People's Liberation Army as well as a procurer of women. "Benefit-the- people Wang" as his name, ironically enough, translates, seems to have put on this profession with the same excitement with which he has decked himself out in Western clothes. The effect is bizarre.

"From the chin up he looks like a gangster. From his neck to his knees he seems like an Englishman who has just stepped out of his neighborhood pub into the London fog. But below his knees, where his army pants emerge to meet his khaki sneakers, he looks Chinese. His costume -- fedora, trenchcoat, and army uniform -- creates the illusion of a man who has been cut in thirds and pasted back together," Schell writes.

Not really such an illusion. For a PLA member to be a procurer of women is a shocking contradiction in terms. And for a young man brought up under the stern leadership of Mao's communism, such amorality, Schell feels, is particularly crazy. Schell shows how out of joint they are with their own background and with the West they emulate. And one senses a moral force behind his perceptions.

The book jumps back and forth, from Peking to Washington to Shanghai to Atlanta, each section containing fragmentary images within it. The chapters and the contradictions within them jangle against each other like an alarm. All the way through it is Schell's ironic glance that catches the telling edge of a handknit sleeve, the army sneakers under the trenchcoat. It is Schell's point of view that holds all these pieces in place.

Looking at what people wear, he is raising rather stern moral questions about the attitudes China and the US have hurriedly thrown on as they race toward each other. It becomes obvious that it is he who has taken up the cry "Watch out for the foreign guests!"

He measures what he sees by China's principles -- Maoist communism, and before that Confucianism, always giving the Chinese a feeling that there is a right way of doing things.

"There's a powerful yearning among all Chinese for orthodoxy," he says in an interview. "It's always been that way. They've had Confucianism for 2,000 years. You knew exactly when you were right and when you were wrong. There's this great character in Chinese" -- he draws it for me -- "it means to be correct, or literally upright. 'Jung.' The Confucianists used this character. It meant you were on board, you were a good, upright Confucian.

"But the Communists have adopted this term, too, to mean the correct line. So it's an interesting notion that at any point there's always a correct way to be."

All this rehabilitation and adoption of Western ways is making waves. What Schell sees is Chinese people ignoring this sense of right and wrong in their infatuation with a culture that offers a variety of rights and wrongs, and "they're just floating off into the ozone."

This kind of contradiction in values, disorienting and grim as it is, is the stuff humor is made of. And Orville Schell isn't going to pass up the chance to make jokes about it all. The way he talks in person bears out my suspicion that he is a very friendly man, and that his irony about changing mores doesn't keep him from appreciating even the likes of Wang Zhaomin.

Moreover, he is the kind of guy you would saunter up to in Peking if you wanted to practice your English. Youngish, with smile lines and a thick thatch of straw-colored hair, he also looks as if he probably knew his way around China.

Wearing a vivid green turtleneck under a tweed jacket, he sits near a window, squinting against the bright midwinter sunlight of Boston, laughing at his own observations -- and at mine.It's easy to understand how Schell got people to tell him everything they did. He is quiet and chuckles a lot, and then makes wry jokes. The perfect listener. When he does get a word in edgewise, though, you want to hear more.

"These people [the denizens of the Peace Cafe], at the same time they're doing these things [that categorize them as] pimps, prostitutes, hustlers, black marketeers -- the categories are a lot uglier than they are.They had still a kind of naivete, and a disarming kind of sweetness about their criminality.Which won't last long," he adds sadly. "They were still just thrilled to be around foreigners. They couldn't decide yet whether to hustle you for some money or bask in your limelight."

"Or be your pen pal," I suggest, remembering my own brief experience in Communist countries.

"Or be your pen pal! Exactly." he agrees. This is fun.

Still, he knows too much about Confucianism, Maoism, and Chinese culture to laugh all the way through this episode in the history of Chinese-American dealings. He has a great fondness for the Chinese, and the changes make him sad.

"There's something about the strength and power of America that is much more profound than the armies and the economic power that we have in our command. It's the power of seduction. This incredibly free, glittery, exciting life. You get into a place like China or Poland or any of these countries, and just a little crack of this dazzling light shining in is breathtaking." It's irresistible and exotic to people who have been living in a poor country, farming in mud huts, where the peasantry does not wear shoes or even speak recognizable Chinese, but a dialect.The chasm between the two cultures is just as breathtaking.

The concept of fashion, for example, is a basic contradiction for a poor communist nation, and it causes the foundation to shake ominously.

"In order for some people to be exciting and flashy you're going to have to have an elite. And who is doing these things? The sons and daughters of diplomats and government officials. You're beginning to get this sort of punked-out upper crust."

The young man in Shanghai who is wearing blue jeans he made himself, complete with a little cotton label on which he has written "Levis" in black ballpoint is a jolly fellow, but he indicates to Schell the same dislocation of values. One young lady at the Peace Cafe is wearing a little, bright-colored pin which on closer inspection proves to be a throwaway tag from a watch which reads "Incabloc -- shock protected."

"It's as though they grabbed something here and they grabbed something there and there's no foundation, no roots. It's an infatuation with a certain sort of symbol, and little shreds. . . . It's like a play that only has a few props and they don't add up and they have nothing to do with the script."

Making your own Levis label may not seem like much of a departure from Right Thinking to us. But the Peace Cafe crowd doesn't seem to differentiate, in its enthusiasm, between wearing a watch tag and prostitution.

Young people write letters to youth magazines about their "crisis in belief." "Letters filled with despair. Existential dead-end despair. You know -- 'I used to believe in the party and now, how laughable all that is, and what do I believe in? There's nothing to believe in. . . .'

"This sense of rootlessness, which is compounded, I think, by the kind of traditional yearning" for knowing the correct line.

Schell himself is nostalgic for the spirit that put up signs with revolutionary slogans, if not for the slogans themselves.

"No, the slogans were sort of a bore, too. But when they're gone, you realize they were really there for a purpose. Now they have, where they used to say 'Serve the party with all your heart and soul' at the street junction, now some sign that says 'Cross the street carefully.' 'Wash vegetables before you eat them,' instead of 'Proletarians of the world, unite!'"

He looks amused but he doesn't laugh. "There was a tediousness to the sloganeering earlier on, but you could feel that for all its clumsiness, it was trying to squeeze people in a healthy direction."

Somewhere behind all the horror of the repressions of the "gang of four" (repressions which Schell portrays movingly in his book), there was real idealism, he says.

Of Mao's widow he says, "I must say, I think she's a snake, a petulant woman, but I did admire her," for her resistance in the gang of four trials and her refusal to apologize. "That was important, because they did represent something more important than crimes. They did represent a radically different view of how you put a society together -- and one which certainly did inspire people for quite a while in China with tremendous vigor and energy at the same time that it was doing some monstrous things.

"So I felt it would have been really quite sad if they had all just kind of given up. Because it would have been the death knell of the vision of the new man, of the potential for people to be more than just basic greedy slobs."

Does he see all Chinese turning away from the party, donning glittery watch labels and drinking Coke, and perhaps begetting a new "me" generation? Maybe.

More probable, he says, is a Maoist renaissance. In the USSR, he points out, there is a nostalgia for Stalin because the present system has become decadent.

"There may be, sooner than we can imagine, a nostalgic reaction away from the West, away from liberalization, toward Mao again as the grand progenitor and toward that kind of purity. That Chinese chauvinism."

Besides a reaction to the likes of Wang Zhaomin (who, it is told in the epilogue, was arrested in the Peace Cafe), China may bite the hand of American industry that feeds it.

"The trouble is, Chinese aren't used to taking handouts. And this Confucian notion that there's always a balance and a harmony is still very much in evidence. If you're Chinese and I give you something, and help you, it's all right. But if I give you something else, well, the balance begins to go out. You begin to feel quite humiliated. . . . That kind of feeling tends to degenerate into resentment that you're the prisoner of someone else's largesse."

That kind of resentment is what he sees happening in Iran.

"Watch Out for the Foreign Guests!" is really an account of hopes being dashed.I remarked that the left always loved the fact that, whether Maoist thought was working or not, the Chinese were at least giving it a good try. Schell agreed.

"We may have been a little naive in assuming that it was possible. . . . But one must credit Mao and all of those around him with a sense of belief in the potential of people to be different and better and fairer. You do not hear many people speaking about equality and the vision of a new society and a new man and serving the people in China today."

Perhaps Orville Schell is not entirely disillusioned. Reality, if stranger than ideology, has amused him. He hasn't put together a puzzle, but rather held up the pieces of something that may never be understood.

"The Chinese tend to swing to extremes, and they [Western businessmen] forget every time we get to one extreme that somewhere there is the other extreme, hidden, like a hibernating animal."

Wherever that animal is now, the loosening of restrictions between these two huge, ill-behaved countries has allowed him glimpses into the changing lives of the comrades.

"I feel just tremendously energized and excited by it, at the same time I feel a little wistful. For the first time I have real Chinese friends, like this young woman, who is a wonderful person [Ling Mulan, who has since come West to study]. Like I said in the book, I am as much a part of the problem as an observer of it, but it's just one of life's ambiguities."

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