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From a lively, astute historian; New view of China's ongoing revolution

The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution 1895-1980, by Jonathan D. Spence. New York: The Viking Press. 465 pp. $19.95. The odd thing about this meticulously researched and lucid account of China's byzantine political history of the past 85 years is that the progress of the ongoing revolution is not the real subject of the work. Jonathan Spence, an historian at Yale University, relies on the revolution to lend the book a foundation and structure, but another subject might have served in its stead, for Spence's theme and final questions lie beyond.

This is not to fault the history. Mr. Spence's astute analysis and chronology of the confusion of parties, powers, events, and motives that propelled China out of the decay and lethargy of late Qing Dynasty feudalism into the orderly, sanitary communism of today's People's Republic of China, is vivid and clear enough to render the subject coherent and accessible to thoughtful consideration , for those who previously had only vague notions of the significance of the May Fourth Movement, the Long March, Red Guard, and ''gang of four.'' This is no mean achievement, but it seems to me neither the author's major accomplishment nor the book's primary goal.

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Instead of following the major political figures to tell the story of the revolution, Spence chooses to trace the lives of three Chinese writers, two men and a woman, ''whose lives were not so obviously central to the course of the revolution but . . . whose personal experiences help to define the nature of the times through which they lived. . . . What I wish to convey,'' he explains in a preface, ''is something of the difficulties of the day-to-day decisions that each of these people had to make, the confusing contexts in which they operated, the intrusions of outside events upon them when they sought to remain sheltered, and the responses of outside agents when they made their occasional bold decisions to act.'' This savors more of Tolstoy than of Toynbee or de Tocqueville.

The Gate of Heavenly Peace has a novelistic symbolism, too. It stands at the entrance to the Forbidden City, representing both the power of the state and the enigmatic force that youthful reformers have approached with protests and dreams. It was the Gate that guarded the emperors, the Gate from which Mao reviewed the massed troops of the Red Guard, the Gate at which generation after generation of young people gathered to air grievances and petition government after government, often with tragic results. Its name conveys a wealth of meaning and irony; Spence's choice of it as his title is significant.

The book begins with the account of a young Qing Dynasty reformer, Kang Youwei, addressing with all the assurance of youth, a giant program of reform proposals to the Emperor in 1895. Although many of the reforms were enacted, Kang eventually had to flee China and live in exile.

The book concludes with accounts of the 1979 trials of two more young reformers - the editor of an unofficial newspaper and a female liaison worker with the peasant poor. Both received stiff prison sentences from the People's Tribunal for disrupting public order and holding counterrevolutionary views.

In between, the narrative follows its literary figures, Kang, Lu Xun and Ding Ling, from the days of early enthusiasm, when buoyed, perhaps, by youthful arrogance and self-righteousness but, nevertheless bright with dreams, they stood, literally or figuratively, in protest at the Gate of Heavenly Peace. It continues up to the time when, dazed and shocked, they surveyed a later scene.

In some cases, they saw their colleagues triumph but lose perspective and, in the thrall of jealousies, ambition, or vengefulness, begin to repeat the abuses of the regimes they had struggled to overthrow. In even more poignant cases, they recognized themselves as victors who had compromised, been compromised, and adopted expediency as an acceptable mode. Further, for these reasons or for no reason at all but the passage of time and the changing fashions of dogma, they were then subject to the charges and the much greater, more personally directed wrath of a new generation of galvanized youth, searching for a way to make the state responsive to them.

Because of Spence's broad and searching outlook and his choice of what Chinese officials refer to as ''middle characters,'' neither saints nor villains , but complex individuals caught in between, to convey the story of the revolution, what emerges is a moving account of nobility, frailty, and courage.

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Wen Yiduo, Lu Xun, Qu Quibai, Ding Ling - one closes the book caring deeply for these people and for their struggle to mold something fine and humane from the unyielding immensity of an oppressive, autocratic state.

That they failed to fully achieve their goals, or that they saw those goals perverted by others or by themselves is not in itself a surprise - or the point. The consciousness of how this happened, of how events in all their complexity ensnared these people in its net, this is what Mr. Spence insists on and what raises his book from the realm of history to that of tragedy on the grandest scale and the most common.

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