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China Cruise

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Immediately behind the garden is the shell of an old temple, part of the same complex. It was gutted during the Cultural Revolution. When I walked into its courtyard in early evening, it was filled with boys playing soccer and surrounded by spectators riveted on the game from their rooms on the old encircling balcony. I watched a family group gathered under the balcony. In it was an old woman, her gray hair pulled back in a tight bun, her dress that of old China - black pants cut full above the ankle, a blouse of crisp white fastened up the side to a mandarin collar. She proudly superintended her grandchildren and matter-of-factly leaned over to pull up the white socks on her feet, tiny from being bound tightly in her youth. Suddenly her granddaughter, a little girl in blue, burst off her tricycle, ran through the boisterous soccer game, grabbed the twin pull rings on the doors of the temple, hoisted herself up and over in a flip of sheer joy - and ran back to her tricycle.

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Glimpses burned into my memory.

A young man in his 20s sitting on a narrow sidewalk in sleeveless undershirt and tan shorts, sheets hanging to dry from the house wall behind him - involved in deep concentration over a game from the Tang dynasty. It was chess, one of the ''sublime pastimes.''

An old man and his grandson, taking morning tea from enameled metal mugs on a small rough table on a Suzhou sidewalk. For all the formality of manners, they could be using the thinnest of porcelain cups in a pavilion of the 12th-century Garden of the Master of the Nets nearby.

Again in Suzhou, an old man in his doorway in the stark shirt and pants that are the uniform of contemporary China - his visage and mien alone exuding a confidence that is the heritage of the oldest continuing civilization on earth. All dignity and reserve. A harmony between him and the decorous old buildings. In his hand a pleated black fan.

But the images most deeply engraved are from Xiamen.

There is the 1,000-year-old Buddhist temple of Nanputuo. Under the green glazed tiles of its pagoda roof and the heavy dark red beams inside, a woman prays before a large gold statue, lighting magenta sticks of incense. The muted light on the white folds of her blouse is totally different from the flat synthetic of white that glares from the mass of shirts in the streets. The beautiful light glows off the old stone floor incised with large simple abstract flowers - and reflects onto her bound feet.

In an inner enclosure behind red slatted gates, row upon row of young and old monks chant in black and saffron robes under long thin red banners falling from the dark high ceiling. The resonant chant, the intense young faces, the solemn grace of the kowtows, and the praying hands are powerfully moving in an officially atheist China. And at a window in the glare of full daylight, another face stares in - under an olive cap with a red star.

There are many such olive caps among the thousands of proudly owned bicycles that are pedaled past the lovely arcades and beautiful old facades of Xiamen's main streets, remnants of her days as an open port, ''open'' to Western commercial colonialism. A new China that has reclaimed her integrity - and made possible basic food and clothing for all her people, bicycles where once there was recurring famine.

A huge black jade bowl stands under a pavilion among ancient gnarled white pines on top of the Round Tower on Beihai Lake in Peking, just across a bridge from the Zhongnanhai, the private working quarters of the leadership of the People's Republic of China. It was given in tribute to Kublai Khan in the 13th century. The Chinese prized jade above all precious stones because it reveals an internal complexity through the smooth external surface. Variations in color are not defects; they are simply its experience with the earth.

Practical details: Arrangements for a cruise on the Yao Hua can be made through Lindblad Travel Inc., PO Box 912, Westport, Conn. 06881. Lindblad Travel , a superior organization in the travel field, arranges all land excursions with escort and provides a cruise director and a hostess. The cruise itself lasts a week, and includes, in addition, two days in Hong Kong and a flight to and two days in Peking. A double cabin runs per person from $2,480 ($1,795 with shared facilities) to $3,995. Air fare to Hong Kong is not included.