Captivating look at Mao; Mao, By Ross Terrill. New York: Harper & Row. $17.50.

This book is a delicious piece of deception by Ross Terrill. It is billed as a biography of Mao Tse-tung (now Mao Zedong). That, of course, it is. Brilliant, painstakingly researched biography.

But it is much more than that, too. Because Mao's life is so inextricably interwoven with the history of China, Mr. Terrill has virtually written a monograph of China within the life span of Mao. And this, too, is superb.

"Mao" is a scholarly book that will enhance Mr. Terrill's already well-established academic credentials. But Mr. Terrill's rare genius is that he is able to mesh the research of the scholar with writing that has the color and pace of the journalist.

Therefore, be warned. Should you dip into this book while swinging in a hammock this summer, you will be hooked until you have finished all 481 pages. In this volume, China is no musty, remote land, overladen with endlessly boring Communist rhetoric. Here is China exploding with revolution, overtaken by drama , riven by power struggles.

Most of us have an image of Mao in his latter years, rotund, brooding, aloof, elevated by the Chinese millions to deific status, manipulating the strings of international Marxist in intrigue in masterful fashion.

This biography does little to diminish that elder-statesman stature. Mao, after all, unified China, became its Marx, Lenin, and Stalin all rolled into one , and produced, as Mr. Terrill puts it, a "Chinese wave on the shore of world history."

But the book also humanizes Mao in a remarkable way, from his early years of rebellion against his father, and his zealous quest for education, through the turbulence of his early years as a party functionary, to his years of oblivion in Yanan, and then the Long March, and his ultimate scramble for power.

So we have here not only Mao the Aesthetic ideologue, but an earthy Mao picking lice from his underwear. We learn of his marriages and his affairs, and his constant jousting with other party officials -- tussle and intrigue that continued long after his ascedancy to party leadership, and all through the years of what, to the outside world, seemed his unchallenged grip on China.

There are incisive passages which reveal, perhaps for the first time, some of the maneuvering the behind the Mao-fomented Cultural Revolution which plunged China into anarchy in the 1960s, and of which some of Mao's highest lieutenants privately despaired. But of course Mao, as Mr. Terrill discerns, was a man uneasy with stability, a man always intent on stirring the pot, a man who believed a nation was strengthened by turmoil and upheaval.

For those of us who spent long years assailed by the propaganda bombast that accompanied the personality cult surrounding Mao, perhaps the most heartening revelation is that Mao himself was somewhat embarrased by much of it. All this, it turns out, may have been the sly work of Lin Biao, one-time designated successor to Mao, but who came to a bloody end trying to speed up the succession. Just how Lin died, Mr. Terrill has been unable to unravel. I remember Chou Enlai questions about Lin's end during a Peking session in 1972. We shall have to wait a little longer.

Part tiger, part monkey, as Mr. Terrill describes him, Mao was capable of extraordinary contradictions. On the one hand, he permitted the death of many thousands during the Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, he expressed great kindness to a deposed Richard Nixon for no apparent reason other than that he liked him.

Ross Terrill has gone a long way to unraveling the enigma that was Mao.

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