''At middle age'' is an apt description for China's contradictory literary scene at this historical moment. China is both a sophisticated and a developing nation. On one hand Chinese writing has broad appeal and ancient traditions. Today a population of 1 billion is hungry for books which must serve a vast range of literacy. On the other hand, as an economically developing country, China is burdened by a continual suspicion of the worth of art compared with subsistence necessities.
Writing has been suppressed at various stages since the Long March of 1934. For instance, during the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976), The Chinese Writers Association suspended activity. In 1978, the association, which functions as a cross between a literary guild and a government cultural agency, resumed work and now has 29 branches across the country. Writers are enjoying this renaissance with a healthy degree of circumspection.
''At Middle Age,'' the controversial novella by Shen Rong, is catching China's imagination. The book has sold over 3 million copies there and is available to Americans in the collection, ''Seven Contemporary Chinese Women Writers.'' (Panda Books, distributed by China Publications Center, P.O. Box 399, Beijing (Peking), P.R. China. 280 pp. $4.95.) A movie based on the story is being shown in packed theaters as well as on television in China. Shen Rong's book hits tender nerves about the exploitation of middle-aged workers and, as an indictment of the Cultural Revolution, contributes to a growing ''literature of the wounded.''
The 85-page novella describes the exhausting life of Dr. Lu Wenting, a 42 -year-old oculist, overwhelmed by obligations to her patients and her family. Despite two decades in medicine, she is still scratching to make a living. The story begins as Lu cracks under the strain and suffers a severe heart attack.
Shen's writing moves with a swift, spare intensity. From her hospital bed, Lu reflects on her life - the early dedication to healing, idealistic hopes for marriage, a long friendship with her colleague Jiang. Her most dramatic recollections concern bitter experiences during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76 ). Once, the Red Guard burst into the room where she was performing a delicate eye operation to halt surgery on a ''bourgeois'' official. ''All that could be seen of her were her eyes and her bare arms above the rubber gloves. . . . Lu said tersely from behind her mask, 'Get out, please!' The rebels looked at each other and left.''
Such steely resolve is Lu's strength as well as her ultimate defeat because she refuses to acknowledge mounting physical and emotional pressures. The hospital gives her more responsibility; family demands increase; her friend Jiang is ''deserting'' her for a new life in Canada. Middle age becomes unbearable.
The carefully compassionate novella leaves readers with a provocative, open end. ''It had rained for a couple of days. A gust of wind sighed through the bare branches of the trees. The sunshine, extraordinarily bright after the rain, slanted in through the windows of the corridor. The cold wind blew in too. Slowly Fu, supporting his wife, headed for the sunlight and the wind.'' Lu recovers, but will her job improve? Will the family tension subside? The inconclusive conclusion, a popular technique in China, effectively focuses the audience on such questions in their own lives.
Lu's tale is emblematic of the experience of many middle-aged professionals in China - people who have endured the political and economic vicissitudes of the Long March, World War II, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. As a generation, they have survived ideological assaults on the value of professional work and considerable personal setbacks in their careers. Despite years of labor, they still face shortages of housing and food. While maintaining a faith in China, their generation is often overlooked, situated as they are between their more visible elders who control the country and their noisier young compatriots who clamor about high unemployment among youth.
''Middle age, middle age. Everyone agrees that middle-aged cadres are the backbone of our country. The operations in a hospital depend on middle-aged surgeons; the most important research projects are thrust on middle-aged scientists and technicians; the hardest jobs in industry are given to middle-aged workers. . . . At work they shoulder a heavy load, at home they have all the housework. They have to support their parents and bring up their children. They play a key role not just because of their experience and ability, but because they put up with hardships and make great sacrifices. . . .''
''At Middle Age'' had a particularly powerful impact on me because I met Shen Rong this summer while traveling in a 12-woman delegation of American authors. At formal conferences with Chinese women writers in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, we shared readings from our work and theoretical papers. By far the most rewarding exchanges occurred when writers invited us to their homes. Shen is especially memorable because we saw evidence of her new success everywhere and because she so clearly embodies her own themes of personal integrity and perseverance.
Shen attended three meetings in Beijing, where she appeared as an intense, chain-smoking, official host. We learned the basic details: At 48 she is a prominent novelist and screenwriter and is planning her second trip to North America. We really began to know her the evening she came to the opera. Her formality and nervousness vanished as we all became absorbed in the magnificent colors and acrobatics of ''Mi Guiying Takes Command.''
Afterward, she invited us to tea. Our bus driver was reluctant to extend his evening duty. However, when he discovered he would be meeting the author of ''At Middle Age,'' he was happy to escort us. In the small, book-lined room of her flat, Shen, still smoking furiously, emerged as a quick, candid woman with a history of persistence. When the conversation turned to education, the bus driver was delighted to learn that he had taken more middle school than Shen herself.
Shen left junior middle school to clerk in a bookstore. In 1952, she was transferred to the Southwest Workers Daily in Chongqing. Two years later her unit sent her to study Russian in college. Then health problems forced her away from her family in Beijing. As she was recuperating in a peasant home in Shanxi, she realized her deepest vocation was writing. By the mid '60s she was back in Beijing writing plays and in the 1970s she turned to fiction.
This evening she introduced us to two of her sons, a literary scholar and a factory worker, both of whom, she noted with relief, would be leaving home soon. Although her 15-year-old daughter will still be there, Shen looks forward to more time and space to write. Her husband works for the People's Daily.
As she served us tea and hard candies, my attention was distracted by the huge shortwave radio in the center of the tiny study. The radio haunts me like a wry metaphor, an appropriately awkward and earnest prop on this intercultural stage. Shen answered our questions with animation. Clearly she was relishing contact with American writers and was gratified by the acknowledgment her work was finally getting in China.
When we left, I wondered how many Western egos could have survived the wide fluctuations in official policy toward individual writers and toward the very meaning of literature. Shen has survived, indeed flourished, because of her seasoned optimism. Her success lies in the graceful yet determined ways her novella conveys the middle-aged complexities of China, Dr. Lu, and herself.