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Portrait of Chinese childhood seen through the eyes of youngsters

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CHILDREN OF CHINA VOICES FROM RECENT YEARS by Ann-ping Chin

New York: Alfred A. Knopf

315 pp. $22.95

ADORABLE automatons best sums up the popular impression in the West of what Chinese children are like. Americans returning from the People's Republic frequently describe the children as obedient to a fault and ever ready to utter a slogan on cue.

Ann-ping Chin's ``Children of China,'' which is based on interviews with 130 youngsters aged 6 to 19, provides a more rounded portrait. As Chin explains, childhood is a time ``when we are experiencing and not analyzing; when we still have the power to be honest about our thoughts and feelings.''

Primarily edited transcripts of interviews done in 1979 and 1984, the book is a sensitive, insightful look at home and school life and at the enormous social and political pressures children and their parents face daily. Although Chin emigrated to the United States when she was 11, she was born in Taiwan to mainland Chinese parents, so she is ``grounded in the same cultural horizon'' as the children she talked with.

Nearly all the children lived in major cities. Most attended ``key'' or model schools and came from families in which at least one parent was a professional. Thus, the book deals primarily with urban life and only tangentially discusses life in the countryside, where 80 percent of China's people still live.

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