A quiet aftenoon talk with novelist Bette Bao Lord turns out to be rather more like celebrating the Chinese new year in high-spirited company. In the understated elegance of her Park Avenue living room, she is all sparkle and snap , punctuating tales of her homeland and her clan with girlish laughter, then turning intense and serious as she relates darker moments of China's recent Cultural Revolution. She evokes the pageantry and pain of China's struggles over the centuries and conjures up ghostly processions of ancestors - both her own, which range from scholar-aristocrats to skilled craftsmen, and those equally vivid characters in her best-selling novel, ''Spring Moon'' (New York: Harper & Row. $14.95).
''My father was a storyteller - once debating champion of China, in fact,'' recalls Bette Lord, who came to the United States with her family when she was eight, just before the communist victory and the fall of Chiang Kai-shek. They had intended to stay only a few years, but her father, a procurement officer for the Nationalist (subsequently the Taiwanese) government, settled permanently near New York City after the communist takeover.
''One of the things that helped me become a writer,'' she says, ''was that I loved to talk to my parents, who were both wonderful storytellers. I was much more of a homebody than my sister Cathy, who was just four when she came here and who had a more typical American teen-age existence. I had a much more Chinese upbringing and liked my parents' company more than that of my peers. So much of what I know about China, and even more important, how I feel about life, came from the hours and hours across the dining room table when I was growing up. I loved to hear about my grandparents and their friends' lives, the old ways and what they lived through - what they survived, in fact.''
But there was more to the making of ''Spring Moon'' than lively dinner-table conversations. An infant sister, left behind in China with relatives when the family came to the United States for what they expected to be a short time, managed to escape only in 1962 when she was 17. Mrs. Lord wrote a compelling nonfiction account of her youngest sister's life as a child growing up in communist China, called ''Eighth Moon.'' Published in 1964, it may be reissued in paperback.
Nor did Mrs. Lord's China connections end there. Her husband, Winston Lord, became Henry Kissinger's chief aide during the Nixon administration and accompanied Kissinger on the dramatic 1971 secret mission to Peking and the ensuing trips which re-established the US-China diplomatic relationship after 20 years of silence. It was Bette Lord's two-month visit there in 1973 that sparked the book.
Kissinger, among others, admires the book unabashedly and says its author is ''one of the extraordinary people I've met in my life.''
''It's one thing to know something of your own society,'' Kissinger says, ''but another to be able to present it in such a way that outside cultures can understand it. I told her after reading the book that I'd have to go back to grade school as far as the Chinese are concerned. I thought I knew something.''
The wealth of memories and tales Mrs. Lord absorbed from her family permeates ''Spring Moon,'' which follows the aristocratic Mandarin Chang family from the disintegration of the Manchu Empire in 1892 to the reopening of China to the West in 1972. The novel focuses on a high-spirited daughter of the clan, Chang Spring Moon. A beautiful girl of 12 when the novel opens, she is bright and curious enough to learn to read and write and play chess, thanks to the liberal attitude of her Western-educated uncle, Bold Talent. But in all other ways she is a devoted daughter of tradition. She may cry with pain when her feet are bound and warped into the customary tiny ''golden lilies,'' or when she is betrothed by her family to someone she detests, but she is prepared to accept her duty. There is simply no alternative, to her.
Spring Moon is rescued from the detested fiance and marries a Western-educated man whom she comes to love deeply. But nothing can save her, and her whole way of life, from the eruption of political forces that are tearing her country apart. The decadent Manchu rulers, non-Chinese invaders who had held sway for 200 years up to this point, were powerless to prevent Western powers from carving up their crumbling empire and enriching themselves at the expense of the native Han Chinese. Impoverished, demoralized, the Han Chinese nevertheless began fitful rebellions which gained momentum during the early decades of the 20th century, culminating in bloody civil war, the famous Long March of Mao and Chou En Lai and their legions, and the ultimate communist victory.
The novel's characters, alive and complex as they are, are still heavy with symbolism, Mrs. Lord explains. ''One central theme is very symbolic of China, and a part of the historical setting as well,'' the author says. ''The central love story of 'Spring Moon' is an incestuous one between Spring Moon and her uncle, Bold Talent.'' Spring Moon's young husband, Glad Promise, is killed. Buffeted by social upheaval, unable to rejoin her family, Spring Moon goes to live with her beloved uncle, an episode that is handled with delicacy and tact. Their son, Enduring Promise, goes to live abroad for decades and is finally reunited with his 92-year-old mother - but in the belief that she is his aunt; he never learns the truth.
''This is central to the book,'' the author continues. ''I felt that in many ways China is still and has always been too much in love with itself. Not open to foreign ideas, or new kinds of people. Very insulated. This contributed to a xenophobia, and their feeling of superiority, historically. I wanted to say something about a China which pays a price for its insularity. . . And when you have an incestuous situation, the fruit of that, ultimately, is not to be recognized.''
And what is that fruit, in historical China? ''It's the whole business of the Cultural Revolution,'' the author replies. ''We forget now that they attacked the British Embassy in the recent Cultural Revolution, just as they did in the Boxer Rebellion. I think when a country is going through rapid change or feels a sense of frustration, the first thing you lash out at is what is alien among you. In the Boxer Rebellion you had the burning of all foreign goods, and in the Cultural Revolution, they did the same. They went through homes; not only was anyone who had anything foreign - magazines, coins - punished, but also those who had any old Chinese things. The Red Guards lashed out against things and people they felt were not revolutionary, or Red, enough. There were times when they wanted to change all the street lights all around the country so that green was 'stop' and red was 'go.'. . . It had no rhyme or reason.''
People often ask Mrs. Lord how much of ''Spring Moon'' is true and how much is fiction, since her own far-flung clan includes not only scholar-aristocrats like the Changs of the Manchu era, but also members of the early 20th-century revolutionary splinter groups, and heroes and victims of the ensuing decades of war and cultural revolution.''All of it's fiction except for the epilogue,'' she says, ''not only because it might have been dangerous for my own relatives there , back in 1973, to write a nonfiction account. But it's also because my own grandmother was much too revolutionary for the requirements of my plot - that is , to show the old way before it changed, embodied in the character of Spring Moon and her family. My actual grandmother apparently rode horses and swam in the ocean - even with her feet bound! She met my grandfather at a poetry club and through the whole time that they were together, they only wrote in poetry to one another.''
This was all shocking enough at the time, but she carried her rebelliousness even further. ''I never in my life heard my mother talk about her mother. I always assumed she'd passed away when my mother was only three or four. But the truth was, there was a scandal. When my grandmother bore only two daughters to my grandfather, he took Wife No. 2, which was perfectly customary, in the hope of having sons. But instead of accepting that humbly - which would have been her duty - my grandmother packed her bags and went home to her own mother, living alone there in Canton for the rest of her life, well into her 80s. . . And my own mother, modern as she seems today, never told me about this. . . ''
Mrs. Lord goes silent for a moment. She had heard of this remarkable woman only when she finally visited relatives in China in 1973 and discovered she had missed meeting her grandmother by only two years. It is perhaps why, in the novel, Spring Moon and her son successfully reunite after so many decades.
Then she brightens, savoring the memory of this personal legend. ''You can see, she was much too revolutionary to be the model for the traditional Chinese woman in my book. And to achieve that authenticity of character was terribly important to me. I didn't want to have just a modern 20th-century Western-style feminist, dressed up in traditional Chinese robes. Not just an American in fancy dress. . . ''
''But most importantly,'' she continues, ''I knew that I wanted a sympathetic character in Spring Moon, not just a vehicle for history.'' Because the setting and the mental attitudes were so utterly foreign to the Western mind, Mrs. Lord wanted ''a character full of grace, who could live through times of tremendous upheaval without losing a sense of the joy of life. That is the Chinese way.''
Bridging the historical gap was the most difficult part. ''If you are writing an American story, for an American audience, they'd understand. You don't have to explain who Truman was. . . but in dealing with the complicated history and customs of this foreign culture, I tried to work it into the narrative. It was awful. Every time I'd start, I'd have to explain something, and the explanation would sit there like a big monster.'' The author hunches her shoulders and makes a would-be monster face. It's difficult, as she is a beautiful woman, with hip-length black hair swirling around her. ''Yet I couldn't skip all that, or the historical part would have been incomprehensible. I found myself sounding like an academic.''
Mrs. Lord credits her editor at Harper & Row, Corona Machemer (''an old-fashioned editor, who works hard with her author''), with finding the solution. During one of their late-evening brainstorming sessions at the Lords' home, the editor suggested a series of clan stories, folk tales, and brief historical asides at the beginning of each chapter.
It was a ''Eureka!'' for Bette Bao Lord. ''I imagined I was Spring Moon, telling those stories, and I found my voice, the voice of my character, and it all became much more natural. I could explain aspects of the historical and cultural setting in those stories and also show that what was happening had echoes in the past. This gave depth to the story. But the basic plotline had not changed from the beginning, and the characters grew and shrank in their own fashion.''
Winston Lord also gets high marks for his editorial assistance; the only person other than her editor, Mrs. Lord notes, to read through every last scribbled draft. Not that the book was without personal interest to him: The story concludes with the Chang family reunion after Henry Kissinger's diplomatic coup.
As early as 1968 Kissinger was considering the desirability of reopening relations with China but didn't think it was politically feasible. The tactical opportunity for a real breakthrough came in the summer of 1969, with the violent flare-ups along the Sino-Soviet border. Kissinger became convinced it was time to move, and the delicate dance of secret, nonattributable messages began between the two superpowers, conveyed by neutral third parties and by word of mouth. (One US diplomat was instructed to approach a Chinese counterpart at a social function; the Chinese official, accustomed to years of mutual silence, was so shocked he ran down the embassy stairs and out to his car, pursued by the determined American.) After months of increasingly friendly hints, nuance, and symbolic gestures, more formal overtures were made and plans laid through the Pakistani government for a secret visit by Kissinger in 1971.
''Winston was sworn to secrecy,'' Mrs. Lord relates, ''but it absolutely killed him not to tell me, because we shared everything, and he knew the secret was safe with me. Being an honorable WASP, he could not break his promise, but the night he was going to leave with Kissinger and the rest for Pakistan, he was fidgeting . . . then he ran to the window, threw it open and said, 'Look, Bette!' I dashed over - and saw only a perfectly empty lawn, and he repeated, 'Look - a Peek-ing Tom!' So then I knew, and didn't say a thing in response; and he knew I knew, and off he went to Pakistan, and the secret trip to Peking.''
Bette Lord collapses against the sofa-back, throwing out her arms with a mock-exhausted ''Oh!'' The excitement of those heady days continued with subsequent diplomatic missions to Peking and Nixon's meeting with Mao Tse-tung.
But she had to wait until the fifth American trip, in 1973, before she could return to her homeland. ''My very honorable WASP husband again,'' she smiles. ''Winston would never ask for favors for his own family. I finally went because I was invited by the People's Republic, and I traveled for several weeks by myself, visiting relatives in many of the cities, then met my husband and the diplomatic group in Peking for a week, and went on by myself again.''
There were almost no Americans in China then, and there was still suspicion of ''the foreign devil.'' She found that hundreds of Chinese followed her when she walked in the street, yet they wouldn't talk to her - she was so clearly a foreigner.
''Or possibly even a traitor,'' she adds. ''It was a Kafkaesque era, with anyone accusing everyone else of antirevolutionary acts, and it was hard to stay out of trouble. For instance, one young Chinese who was a champion swimmer was accused because his breast stroke went from left to right! Or another odd item: The Chinese written character for Mao's name was the same as for 'sense,' and also the same for 'cat' - just a simple ordinary cat. But if anything happened to a cat in your factory or workplace, the person whose fault it might remotely be was accused of an antirevolutionary act against Mao and the truth.''
But her trip also held great warmth, as she was reunited with various relatives. At one stop, she was greeted at the train by a small crowd of them, brandishing little red books - Mao's political slogans, she thought with trepidation. Then she discovered the books were American-Chinese dictionaries, and her relatives were eager to be reacquainted, not to shower her with polemics.
Bette Lord returned to the US and signed a contract to write the story of her return to China. She had ''half a book'' by 1975, but then the political situation in China became even more tense, with the anti-Confucius, anti-Lin campaigns. (Defense Minister Lin Piao, thought to be Mao's successor, had died in disgrace, suspected of plotting a coup.) Mrs. Lord feared that any controversial observations she recorded might be traced back to her relatives and create trouble for them. She put her nonfiction book aside and began a novel.
The rest, as they say, is history. And like history or a New Year's Day, Bette Bao Lord's story is many millenia old, and just beginning.