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China Cruise

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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.

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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.