A visit recently to one of the 11 Children's Palaces in Shanghai provided a sudden sharp realization of the changes that had taken place since my last trip to Shanghai in 1976.The direction was away from rigid perfectionism in training children toward a realistic flexibility and even allowance for a mistake or two - away from little automatons to real boys and girls. In economics, according to recent reports, China may be turning back toward Maoism. But here in education a freer atmosphere prevailed, at least for the moment.
Children's Palaces are centers for after-school programs attended one afternoon per week by elementary and early middle school age children. They serve the dual purpose of recreation and acquiring skills in the arts or technical subjects.
When a foreign visitor arrives by appointment at a Children's Palace, a child steps forward to offer greetings and hold the visitor's hand while acting as a guide. My guide on this occasion was a very pretty, animated girl of 10. We were joined by one of the teaching staff, and together we explored most of the rooms with elaborate electronic games. Then we found our way to the large reception room.
There were no slogans or political portraits on the walls. Chairman Mao and the four prophets of European communism - Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin - would have had places of honor in 1976. Now they were conspicuously absent.
When a group of British tourists had gathered, the briefing began. The speaker seemed to be an official of the school. He was not the vice-chairman of the Revolutionary Committee, as he would have been during the last days of the so-called Cultural Revolution - which is now referred to, if at all, as the ''time of turmoil.'' There was no mention of Mao, the Gang of Four, or even Deng Xiaoping. There was only a low-keyed attempt to explain some of the activities available and to describe the ages and schedules of the children.
My small guide and a friend kept up a whispered conversation and made several slightly disruptive excursions to look out of the windows or to peek into the corridor. No one reprimanded them, or even seemed to notice.
We slipped away from the briefing to find seats in the auditorium for a program by the children. It was completely different from the many I had attended in 1976. Those had consisted of precocious performances by child stars , heavily made up with rouge and lipstick and wearing elaborate costumes of ethnic minorities - or dressed as soldiers with guns slung over their shoulders - dancing and singing to the accompaniment of adults playing the piano or accordion.
Now the atmosphere was considerably more informal, reminding one of a recital given by enthusiastic but nervous novices in the United States. A plump little girl played several short selections on the piano. A solo dance in Balinese costume was performed by a girl of about 11 who needed some prompting part way through. A boy and girl enacted a pantomime routine in which they coyly rejected each other's advances but ended up with a peck on the cheek while holding hands.
The amateur quality was delightful. The harassed teachers gesturing instructions from the wings could be found at any American school play. Gone were the professional quality singers and dancers; gone were the slogans, the flags and banners, the uniforms and guns. It was instead a wonderful hodge-podge of theatrical effort appropriate to the age of the performers.
After the performance we were allowed to wander from classroom to classroom. My favorite moment - the one that epitomized my feeling about the new spirit in China, the easing of strict patterns and impossible expectations - came in a small magic class. A girl of perhaps 9 was the magician of the hour. With two solemn assistants of the same age, she managed with some difficulty to tie scarves on a string and then remove them as if there were no knots. She had almost mastered some of the charming exaggerated gestures of a magician and was demonstrating the solidity of her wand - when its center dropped out with a clatter, revealing the wand to be hollow after all. She retrieved it without embarrassment and continued the trick, which now was completely pointless.
The teacher and I exchanged rueful glances. I clapped at the finale with the fervor of someone privileged to have witnessed an amazing and memorable performance. It was the highlight of my trip, the culmination of many small signs that the rigid goal of ideological perfection of the Cultural Revolution had given way to the acceptance of human qualities. I had glimpsed a moment when the children of the new China looked very much like our children at home.