The Cultural Revolution in China was in full swing the last time Tom Brokaw visited there in 1975. A few months ago he returned from his most recent trip and, although the Cultural Revolution is an episode of the past, the Chinese seem to be just as inscrutable as ever.
''Warm, but inscrutable,'' Mr. Brokaw chuckles at his own use of the cliche, during an interview in his corner office at NBC News headquarters in Rockefeller Center.
His observations and the camera work of a British company, ASH Films Ltd., are the backbone of an NBC White Paper, Journey to the Heart of China (NBC, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 8-10 p.m.)m.
Tom Brokaw is one of television's purest broadcast journalists. After graduating from the University of South Dakota, he went right into TV as a newsman on KMTV in Omaha in 1962, then anchored the late evening news on WSB-TV in Atlanta in 1965. In 1966 he moved to the NBC station in Los Angeles, KNBC, then to Washington as the NBC White House correspondent, where he remained until 1976, when he became principal correspondent, then co-anchor, on the ''Today'' show. He stayed there until the end of 1981. In 1982 he was made co-anchor with Roger Mudd of the ''NBC Nightly News.'' Then a few months ago, with NBC third of three in the network news ratings, Mr. Mudd was removed from his job and Brokaw was made sole anchor.
All this without benefit of newspaper experience, but with a high degree of hard-nosed news-gathering ability, which has won the admiration of many veteran print journalists. Whether or not Mr. Brokaw will be able to pull NBC News into shouting distance of CBS and keep it ahead of ABC is a situation being watched very careful in news circles . . . and in top-level NBC headquarters.
Now, he hesitates to make any political pronouncements about what he found in China. ''This show is not about politics,'' he insists. ''It's about how people live. In fact, I would say it is a kind of very sophisticated home movie.''
Was he able to travel around the country freely?
''I was able to go to a Confucian and a Buddhist temple which were both closed during the Cultural Revolution. I went from Peking to Nanjing by train, where I got (into) a prison, a courthouse, and an apartment complex. After that Shanghai, where I went to a shipyard, a shoe factory, and a street market.
''Nothing was shut off from me. Everything we asked for, we got. The only reservation was when we shot some street scenes about their new crackdown on law and order. They were a little nervous about that, but they checked with Peking and it was OK.
''But they talk openly about things like 'the gang of four' and the Cultural Revolution. China seems to have really come back into the sunshine again after this long night of darkness. They tell tales about what it was like and how it could not happen again because people wouldn't stand for it this time.''
What are the greatest misconceptions Americans and Chinese have about each other?
''Here we believe that China is a happy, uniform worker's paradise. That the Chinese all get along. This is a country of 1 billion, 8 million people who live in a variety of provinces and villages and localities, each with their own distinctive way of doing things. I think Americans think of China as a fantasyland. It's a real place with real problems.
''Americans must learn that these are people with a long view of history. They've been through a lot of trauma in the last 35 years, but as one of the Chinese I talked to said, 'The Cultural Revolution is just a pimple on the face of China.' As traumatic as it was - maybe 800,000 people killed - they move on.
''The Chinese can't believe that our great consumer society really exists. They are just astounded by the stories of what we have, and really don't believe them. We visited one family, a rich peasant family, and they had two bicycles, two tape recorders, two radios, and every member of the family had a wristwatch. That they considered inordinate wealth. Take the poorest farm family in Iowa and they have more than that.''
Did Tom Brokaw observe many changes since his last visit there in 1975?
''Yes. It turns out that China was in the middle of the Cultural Revolution then, although many Americans and outsiders just didn't know what was going on because (the Chinese) were so secretive. But it was very authoritarian, everything was very dogmatic. You couldn't engage anybody in real conversation about anything. We had a guide who spoke only in doctrinaire terms. Everything came out 'I do this only for Chairman Mao' and 'We are interested only in furthering the spirit of the revolution.' That kind of stuff. This time our guide was a man from the New China News Agency and he was quite forthcoming about the meaning of the Cultural Revolution and some of the flaws that still exist in the system.
''This time I also found that people were often dressed in Western style, women had their hair done, they were wearing sweaters and many different styles, whereas before it was just this monotonous look to them. But it's still a society closely run by the Communist Party and by a handful of leaders in Peking.''
How about food?
''An American tourist who goes there in a package deal eats in a dining room set aside for tourists and pays a lot more than Chinese pay for food.
''We wanted to give a dinner, and the people showing us around asked us to let them order it. We got a much grander meal at half the price. So it's a bizarre kind of thing; the price of food in restaurants depends upon where you are and who you are with.''
Mr. Brokaw admits that he loves Chinese food and reveled in the chance to eat it at every meal.
''I ate everything. I ate chicken feet; I ate eels. Everything. The food was exceptional. There's a certain amount of prosperity in China now and there's lots of food around. They've had good crops, so people are eating well. The food is the same as New York Chinese food . . . only more exotic. They say that the Cantonese will eat anything with four legs except a table and anything with wings except an airplane. And that means cat, dog, armadillo, anteater, snake, everything.''
What has happened to all those millions of little Red Books which contained the sayings of Chairman Mao Tse-tung?
''I had to take my own into the country. They are hard to find. There's now a new book,'' and he holds up a copy. ''The Expressions of Deng Xiaoping.''
Do the Chinese see much television?
''I saw a lot of English lessons on TV. And a lot of 'Zoro.' They are worried about showing too much of Western TV, not merely crime but the whole Western value system. The dress, behavior, violence and crime.''
Is crime a growing problem in China?
''It's growing sufficiently so there's a crackdown. But it's still not like anything in most Western countries. In one district of 300,000 people they had 100 court cases.
''But there were reports of street fights that we couldn't track down. And the punishment for rape and kidnapping and murder is execution . . . people get shot in public.''
What would Tom Brokaw like the show to accomplish?
''I think Americans must have a more realistic view of what Chinese society is all about. That it is unique as a culture and yet it is richly varied within China. There are thousands of local dialects and many distinctive minority groups, for example. That life in an industrial town can be quite harsh, up in the northwest quite regimented, whereas life in Shanghai is quite urbane and fairly Western. In the villages, life is very primitive. People in America sometimes don't understand that in the 20th century this great society can be so primitive that a real sign of wealth is just two pigs. And they keep the pigs right next to the house and pump the methane gas from the pig waste right into the house and use it for fuel. That's very primitive.
''What I'd really like the show to do, ultimately, is demonstrate to the American people what China and the Chinese people are all about.'' He doesn't seem at all awed by the rather awesome goal he has set for his two-hour special.
Brokaw believes his ''NBC Nightly News'' is going very well. ''I think if people look at this program night after night on a qualitative basis, which is the important thing, they will find that this is a first-rate news program fully competitive every night. Judge us that way, not by the weekly score card of ratings.''
He says he misses the ''Today'' show. ''I miss the longitude and latitude of it. You had all this time to do things and really get deeply into matters . . .''
Although the ''NBC Nightly News'' remains in second or sometimes third place, there is unanimous agreement that Tom Brokaw ranks as No. 1 in good looks among TV newsmen. His still-boyish grin and business-wear-ad appearance sometimes seem to put a strain on him to make certain that the world knows that he is a serious , intelligent, hardworking adult. Occasionally that even results in accusations of pretentiousness.
I didn't find him so at all. The interview started with Mr. Brokaw offering me a David's chocolate-chip cookie and ended with him tossing a miniature football around the office with the producer of ''NBC Nightly News.''
Not exactly pomposity in action.