Water has meant transportation and communication - and in its control through irrigation, life itself - to the Chinese for millenniums. China's rivers and coast give the cruise passenger entree to the country through ancient gateways and, between cities, surround him with the vibrant life of water traffic: sampans, junks, long convoys of small, narrow boats towed like boxcars. It is a highway heavily redolent of the past.
Water is an important symbol of power for the Chinese, the water more commanding over time than stone. It is a concept of time that assumes continuity beyond the lifetime of the individual. The highly prized eroded rocks of classical gardens were often harvested by grandsons long after the death of the man who carefully selected and placed them in lake currents. It is not incidental to an experience of China to be in daily contact with a principle, an element, so integral to Chinese culture.
But the traveler on the Yao Hua (the Brilliant), a newly introduced cruise ship under the direction of Lindblad Travel, will be aware first of the beauty of China's waterways, beginning at the old southern capital of Nanjing (the former Nanking), on the Yangtze. The great legendary river, highway immemorial into the inaccessible interior, its presence laden with the images of centuries of trackers hauling junks upriver along towpaths against the deadly magnificent turbulence of its upper reaches.
At dawn it is a lovely pastel, light blue-gray, with a slight cast of yellow. Seen directly from above, the water seems to have an ocher boiling up in it, a delicate smoke, beautiful, impenetrable. Small accents intensify the monotone. A barge with blue sides and orange bits of structure passes loaded with even conical piles of fine black - coal. A line of junks floats by, their sails bright white in the first sun.
On another boat, a man eats a breakfast bowl of congee, his blue shirt centered against a green patch of cabin with a black rectangle for a door. But the dominant impression on the wide expanse of water is that of ocher: sampans with woven mats, planking, and long oars all the same uniform tone of the river silt. The river color becomes the whole world, obliterating the horizon, shading into an envelopment in blue.
Coming into Shanghai, the great ''city above the sea,'' takes hours, it is so immense. The surface of the water is covered. Huge cargo ships and rusting freighters slide heavily by; elegant junks maneuver gracefully among them; endless small open boats ply the shifting open spaces, carrying a miscellany from scrap metal to crated hogs. The banks of the Huangpu are coated solidly with the massive effluvia of shipping - docks and enormous ships and great cranes. The riverscape is an abstraction in metal, a long mobile sculpture in subtle tones of brown with an occasional plane of bright color. The Yao Hua, in brilliant naval whites with her rainbow of ribbons, becomes simply a part of the throbbing, infinitely varied life of one of the largest ports in the world.
The canals of Suzhou are linked to the Yangtze and to the sea by the Grand Canal, one of the major engineering feats of ancient China. But large modern ships cannot negotiate the shallow water.Thus Suzhou's canals retain a quiet loveliness. They reflect the patina of the old city (Soochow): the venerable white houses with heavy, uneven gray tile roofs, the aged stone walls at the banks. Facades are reflected in repeated verticals as they recede into the distance, and long strands of willow trail down into the water in a sinuous echo. Suzhou's waterways draw the visitor into a uniquely intact old urban interior.
Xiamen, in contrast, is of the sea. And it is on the sea, out from the old city (formerly Amoy), that one experiences the full visual romance of the junk. There are many, and they glide separately but in harmonious tandem against the flat muted mountains outlined on the horizon. Some have old patched sails that are patterns of gray and white; others, torn sails with a filigree of light at the center. The line of the junk in motion is a continuous, sweeping curve, the contour of the sail flowing into that of the hull. They move in an early morning Whistler wash of light dulling translucently through blue. And with them are the tiniest of sampans, the true sampan, the ''three planks,'' essentially one with the sea in total exposure to sun and wave.
The Yao Hua takes its passengers through a series of beautiful pailou, the ornamental gateways of old China - and in smooth ease and comfort, a fact not appreciated unless one realizes how strenuous travel in China can be with an accumulating succession of minor inconveniences. There are unpredictable plane departures, erratic elevators, a lack of porters, and inflexible bureaucratic regulations.
There are also two days of uninterrupted cruising to enjoy the traditional relaxations of a luxury ship. One can sun on deck. Or attend films on China and lectures by the resident Sinologist. Or take advantage of a truly unique opportunity to observe and to be with the Chinese.
The Yao Hua is a Chinese ship with a Chinese flag and an all-Chinese crew. And the crew is accessible. Young sailors are out washing the deck and raising the bunting at 5 a.m. There is a great freshness and innocence, a shy eagerness to communicate, a poise and self-assurance in the manner of the young women who work in the dining room. The crew lives on board a facsimile of their life in China. There is Tai Ji Quan on deck at 6 a.m., spontaneous, a part of the early morning ritual in Chinese cities. For the traveler to China to face the water and join in the slow graceful exercise is for him to experience a centering in self and with nature that is a powerful connection with the Chinese way.
Shipboard life is also a microcosm of the socialist state. Officers and crew eat without distinction in the same dining room. And the political commissar, an official on every Chinese vessel, equal in rank with the captain, holds weekly meetings for crew education. On the Yao Hua he stresses that the passengers are invited guests, that they are ''the people.'' Some of the incongruity of a luxury liner operating under the auspices of Marxist-Leninist socialism thus becomes comprehensible. It's using the past to meet the needs of the present. China needs foreign exchange and has an inviolable tradition of hospitality. But economics cannot explain the very human connections, the great courtesy.
''Even the poor person will take out the best things to receive his guest,'' I was told by a young man whose every nuance bespoke sincerity and graciousness. The Yao Hua passenger is privileged to live with the Chinese for a week, to be their invited guest. It is one of the great assets of the voyage.
On land, there is of course a greater complexity to life, and it immerses the traveler in the puzzle of shadow and reality that contemporary Chinese society is. An inextricable mixture of old and new. A civilization of 4,000 years significantly changed in 30. Constantly experiences prompt the question: What is past and what present?
The 16th-century Garden of the Mandarin Yu in Shanghai is a large, intricate complex of courtyards and pavilions. The architecture and the cut stone detail are magnificent. One of the entrance halls is surrounded by a delicate tracery exactly depicting a series of birds, a minor masterpiece, but amid so much splendor, it is merely a small piece of the whole.
Immediately behind the garden is the shell of an old temple, part of the same complex. It was gutted during the Cultural Revolution. When I walked into its courtyard in early evening, it was filled with boys playing soccer and surrounded by spectators riveted on the game from their rooms on the old encircling balcony. I watched a family group gathered under the balcony. In it was an old woman, her gray hair pulled back in a tight bun, her dress that of old China - black pants cut full above the ankle, a blouse of crisp white fastened up the side to a mandarin collar. She proudly superintended her grandchildren and matter-of-factly leaned over to pull up the white socks on her feet, tiny from being bound tightly in her youth. Suddenly her granddaughter, a little girl in blue, burst off her tricycle, ran through the boisterous soccer game, grabbed the twin pull rings on the doors of the temple, hoisted herself up and over in a flip of sheer joy - and ran back to her tricycle.
Glimpses burned into my memory.
A young man in his 20s sitting on a narrow sidewalk in sleeveless undershirt and tan shorts, sheets hanging to dry from the house wall behind him - involved in deep concentration over a game from the Tang dynasty. It was chess, one of the ''sublime pastimes.''
An old man and his grandson, taking morning tea from enameled metal mugs on a small rough table on a Suzhou sidewalk. For all the formality of manners, they could be using the thinnest of porcelain cups in a pavilion of the 12th-century Garden of the Master of the Nets nearby.
Again in Suzhou, an old man in his doorway in the stark shirt and pants that are the uniform of contemporary China - his visage and mien alone exuding a confidence that is the heritage of the oldest continuing civilization on earth. All dignity and reserve. A harmony between him and the decorous old buildings. In his hand a pleated black fan.
But the images most deeply engraved are from Xiamen.
There is the 1,000-year-old Buddhist temple of Nanputuo. Under the green glazed tiles of its pagoda roof and the heavy dark red beams inside, a woman prays before a large gold statue, lighting magenta sticks of incense. The muted light on the white folds of her blouse is totally different from the flat synthetic of white that glares from the mass of shirts in the streets. The beautiful light glows off the old stone floor incised with large simple abstract flowers - and reflects onto her bound feet.
In an inner enclosure behind red slatted gates, row upon row of young and old monks chant in black and saffron robes under long thin red banners falling from the dark high ceiling. The resonant chant, the intense young faces, the solemn grace of the kowtows, and the praying hands are powerfully moving in an officially atheist China. And at a window in the glare of full daylight, another face stares in - under an olive cap with a red star.
There are many such olive caps among the thousands of proudly owned bicycles that are pedaled past the lovely arcades and beautiful old facades of Xiamen's main streets, remnants of her days as an open port, ''open'' to Western commercial colonialism. A new China that has reclaimed her integrity - and made possible basic food and clothing for all her people, bicycles where once there was recurring famine.
A huge black jade bowl stands under a pavilion among ancient gnarled white pines on top of the Round Tower on Beihai Lake in Peking, just across a bridge from the Zhongnanhai, the private working quarters of the leadership of the People's Republic of China. It was given in tribute to Kublai Khan in the 13th century. The Chinese prized jade above all precious stones because it reveals an internal complexity through the smooth external surface. Variations in color are not defects; they are simply its experience with the earth.
Practical details: Arrangements for a cruise on the Yao Hua can be made through Lindblad Travel Inc., PO Box 912, Westport, Conn. 06881. Lindblad Travel , a superior organization in the travel field, arranges all land excursions with escort and provides a cruise director and a hostess. The cruise itself lasts a week, and includes, in addition, two days in Hong Kong and a flight to and two days in Peking. A double cabin runs per person from $2,480 ($1,795 with shared facilities) to $3,995. Air fare to Hong Kong is not included.