Four years ago, Time magazine hailed China's leader, Deng Xiaoping, as the man of the year. Despite past conflicts, a new American honeymoon with China had blossomed.
The diminutive Mr. Deng himself came to the United States in January 1979. At a rodeo amphitheater in Houston, the leader grinned and waved an enormous cowboy hat. The crowd loved it. Time said that China was a society facing ''almost infinite possibilities.''
Today, the euphoria has most definitely faded. The US and China appear to be settling in for a useful but much more realistic relationship. It is not just that recent trade talks on textiles between the two nations have failed. There seem to be tensions built into the relationship that will not go away.
And as he sets out for China next week, Secretary of State George Shultz appears to expect less from the US-China relationship than his immediate predecessors did. Mr. Shultz clearly wants to strengthen ties between Washington and Peking, and he has given some thought to how this can be done. But the secretary is going about it cautiously. No dramatic or quick solutions are in sight.
The Chinese had hoped by this time to obtain more in the way of high technology from the US. Although President Reagan has gone a long way to accommodate Peking on the issue of Taiwan, he was so slow in doing so that it created uncertainties among the Chinese. They were apparently stunned by Reagan's election campaign declarations about the need to strengthen ties with Taiwan.
According to one American scholar, A. Doak Barnett, the Chinese simply have less confidence in the United States' intentions and capabilities than they did a few years ago. And they take a less alarmist view, apparently, of Soviet capabilities.
''I think the Chinese have made a more realistic appraisal of relations with the US,'' a State Department official says. ''It's not going to be quite the love feast that it promised to be at one time. American businessmen are not rushing into China.''
At the same time, however, specialists on the subject point to a number of areas where economic relations can be improved.
''Energy, transportation, communications, and agricultural productivity - these are all areas where we have a great deal to offer China,'' an administration official says.
In a statement made last month, Christopher H. Phillips, president of the National Council for US-China Trade, declared that there were ''solid grounds for optimism'' about the development of US-China economic relations in 1983.
''New business opportunities will arise for American companies, through joint ventures, coproduction agreements, licensing, and so forth,'' Mr. Phillips said. ''These could be particularly significant in areas related to China's offshore oil production, the development of China's hydropower, and in the exploitation of China's natural resources, such as coal.''
But there is also a growing awareness of the limits in the relationship. As Phillips puts it: ''Unlike some of the unrealistic euphoria which prevailed in earlier years, the views of most companies with Chinese experience today are based on a much greater sense of realism and a much greater willingness to take a longer-term view.''
William H. Gleysteen Jr., a China specialist and former ambassador to South Korea, points to three areas where tension with China may be unavoidable:
First, there is the ongoing dispute over American support for Taiwan. Second, Ambassador Gleysteen says, is China's negotiating style. It is often an all-or-nothing approach to negotiations which has paid off for the Chinese in the past, but often rubs Americans the wrong way.
Finally, there is the more independent position China has taken between Washington and Moscow. As the Chinese improve, ever so slightly, their relations with the Soviets, this is bound to create a certain tension with the Americans.
Gleysteen, who is director of the Asia Society's Washington Center, says he doesn't think the current talks between China and the Soviet Union will produce a strategic shift in Sino-Soviet relations, but that a trend toward less tension is likely.
Gleysteen agrees that much can be done to improve economic relations between the US and China. He is more skeptical than some about the possibilities for cooperation in the field of nuclear energy. But he says the US should accelerate moves to sell high technology to China, including items such as computers, which could have both military and civilian uses.
Secretary of State Shultz is said to view technology sales to China more cautiously than did his predecessor, Alexander M. Haig Jr. Mr. Haig placed great stress on China's value as a counterweight to Soviet power, and played a key role in loosening restrictions on possible arms sales to China. When it came to this issue in a recent meeting which he held with China specialists from outside the government, Shultz was described as ''Delphic'' - meaning noncommittal.
But a senior State Department official told reporters Monday that relations with China could stand some improvement and that some disputed issues are ''potentially resolvable.'' The official, who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be identified, said it was hoped that Secretary of State Shultz's visit to China, which is set for Feb. 2-6, would result in a process leading to a US-China relationship that is ''sound and stable.''