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Down is up; skating, opera are in

Down parkas are the latest fashion among Peking youth. Winter has always been the least colorful season here, when even the slimmest wisp of a girl will bundle herself up in lumpy cotton-padded overcoat against the piercing winds whirling dust down Changan Boulevard.

This winter, as last, blue and khaki are the prevailing colors. But more and more, down parkas in brown and maroon or orange relieve the monotony. Often, under the parka, a pair of China-made jeans signals the really well-dressed young man around town.

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Peking's largest department store, on Wangfujing near the Peking Hotel, reports sales of 500 down parkas per hour, but sales of cotton-padded overcoats have dropped by 80 percent or more.

This city has already had two snowfalls this year, and cyclists must beware of icy patches, particularly on streets that never get the sun. But snow is not a major problem on the arid north China plain, and would-be skiers must travel all the way to Harbin in the northeast.

Ice-skating, however, is the winter sport par excellence in the capital, with magnificent surroundings in which to take one's girlfriend for a spin - whether in Beihai Park overlooked by the white dagoba and the pavilions of the Qing emperors, or out at the Summer Palace beloved by the notorious Empress Dowager Tzu Hsi.

Indoors, the premier troupe of the Peking Opera has returned to the capital after a long tour. The Jixiang theater on Goldfish Lane was the scene of a particularly notable performance a few days ago, when Fang Rongxiang of Shandong teamed up with Qiu Shao Yun of Peking.

Both played the ''black face'' Bao Gong, a noted Sung Dynasty minister - Qiu in the first scene, Fang in the second. Both drew enthusiastic applause and shouts of ''hao'' - good.

Normally, when a theater performance ends here, the audience applauds perfunctorily, then rushes for the exits in order to catch the final buses before 10 o'clock. But not this evening. A whole flock of mostly young spectators rushed down front, shouting, applauding, demanding handshakes, and passing up bouquets to the two Bao Gongs in their resplendent gold-brocaded robes.

And thereby hangs a tale.

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All through the 10 years of the so-called Cultural Revolution and the reign of the ''gang of four'' (1966-76), the Peking Opera was banned as reactionary and feudalistic. Jiang Qing, Mao Tse-tung's wife and the cultural czar during this period, allowed only eight operas.

Leading actors were ''persecuted to death,'' as officials now put it - beaten and otherwise cruelly mistreated and either died outright or later as a result of their sufferings.

Among them was Qiu Shengyun, founder of the Qiu school and one of the leading ''black face'' interpreters of his time. (In Peking opera, black-painted faces signify heroes and white-painted ones, usually villains.)

Typical entertainment in Peking is still Peking Opera and storytelling and acrobats. In Taipei it is discos and Western movies and smart coffee shops. Taiwan is the first and so far only Chinese province in which two-thirds of the population are city-dwellers, not peasants.

This kind of characterization may be angrily rejected both by Peking and by Taipei, but of one thing a visitor can be certain: Compared to the frenetic motor traffic and razzle-dazzle neon lights of Taipei, Peking is like a placid backwater in which the noonday siesta remains sacrosanct, and traffic jams are caused by thousands of bicycles overflowing into automobile lanes. Discos are fun, but I would still vote for the Peking Opera.

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