Cambridge, Mass. — Why is it,'' my friend Song Erli inquired of me several months ago, ''that when we Chinese were suffering under the oppressive rule of the 'gang of four,' you Americans wrote nothing but good about China?
''But today, when Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping is working to bring about genuine reform, you are saying nothing but bad?''
There is reason to Song Erli's question. In 1972, when Americans began converging on China once more, returning home to write ''nothing but good,'' the college-educated, sophisticated, urbane Mr. Song had just been released from a year-and-a-half imprisonment for his alleged misdeeds during the Cultural Revolution. Upon release, he was sent to a remote and impoverished area of the Chinese countryside where he labored as an ordinary coal miner. Not until 1978 did he return to his university.
In 1982, as part of the pragmatic, reformist policies of modernization-minded Deng Xiaoping, Song was given an opportunity he could scarcely have dreamed possible from his crowded prison cell or the dark pit of a mine. He was permitted to spend a year studying in the United States.
Song Erli's question highlights a puzzling phenomenon about American attitudes toward China. Since Americans and Chinese first came into contact two centuries ago, our attitudes toward that country have tended to swing, pendulum-like, from one extreme to the other - from love to hate, adulation to comtempt, admiration to disdain.
The China of Marco Polo - romantic, mysterious, exotic - has long conflicted with the China of the Genghis Khan - barbarian, war-loving, and brutal. The image of the stolid, stoic, resigned Chinese peasant so indelibly etched on the American mind by Pearl Buck's ''The Good Earth,'' exists simultaneously with the equally vivid film images of the burning, looting, murdering China of the turn-of-the-century Boxer Rebellion.
But the images we have held of China have not always conformed with the images China has held of itself.
With the revolutionary transfer of power in 1949 from the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek to the Communist government of Mao Tse-tung, our perception of China was radically transformed once more. From China struggling to be like ''us,'' democratic and free, the image was transformed to that of China forced to be like ''them,'' a nation of ants, brainwashed by totalitarianism.
But that is not how the Chinese I have interviewed during some nine months on the mainland remember the early 1950s. For them, the term ''liberation'' which the communists used to refer to the establishment of their new government is real.
''The 1950s?'' one man responded, ''Those were the golden years.''
Said a woman whose mother had died of starvation on the streets of Shanghai, ''I suffered in the old society, and then, suddenly, in 1949, I was liberated. The party sent me to the university to study. I got a good position. It was Chairman Mao who rescued me.''
It is no small political irony then that the gates of China were reopened to Americans, and the pendulum began its return, precisely when Chinese perceived themselves to be suffering more grievously than at any other time since before ''liberation.'' For if Song Erli exaggerates in suggesting that after ping-pong diplomacy Americans wrote ''nothing but good,'' many reports on China following President Richard Nixon's historic visit were bathed in an incandescent glow.
The same columnist who had earlier accused the Communist regime of starving its peasants to control population returned from China in 1973 to declare Chinese peasants among the richest in Asia.
Another who had concluded in 1962 that the Chinese had made a ''ghastly mess of their revolution'' would liken China of 1972 to a ''cooperative barn-raising'' party.
While Americans were belatedly seeing in China its golden years, Chinese themselves were still reeling from the violent turmoil of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which was launched by Mao in 1966 and had settled by 1972 into a phase of routinized oppression.
Song Erli is not unique in having been imprisoned without cause and sent to spend years at forced labor. Many of the friends I made in China had suffered similar fates.
Denounced as counterrevolutionaries, traitors, and spies, they had lost their houses, their possessions, their jobs, and their right to pursue their careers.
So many Chinese were incarcerated that the jails were incapable of accommodating the prisoners, and whole office buildings and dormitories were converted into houses of detention. Many were tortured in an effort to extract confessions to crimes they had not committed. Adults were sent in massive numbers to labor-reform camps euphemistic-ally called ''May 7th Cadre Schools.'' Some 17 million educated young people - the hope of China's future - were sent to remote areas of the countryside to labor as peasants.
Nearly everyone I interviewed had lost relatives or friends as a result of the Cultural Revolution. How many lives were lost, probably we never will know. Hundreds of thousands, certainly. Perhaps as many as a million.
Hu Yaobang, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and himself a victim of the Cultural Revolution, has been quoted as saying that 100 million people were victims of the Cultural Revolution as well as of the anti-rightist campaign of 1957.
A cooperative barn-raising party?
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations in January 1979, a growing number of American journalists, businessmen, students, teachers, and scholars have been given the opportunity not merely to ''gaze at flowers from horseback, '' as the Chinese refer to the tourists' view, but to live and work in China for extended periods of time. The first wave has now returned. The pendulum has resumed its relentless swing. Much of what newly returned Americans say does not reflect with favor on China.
One American who spent a year teaching in an inland province chose to title the article about his experience, ''China stinks.'' Partly because of the poverty that pervades the interior, but more emphatically because of China's totalitarian regime, he summed up his overall impressions of the country in a mere two words: ''pretty grim.''
Harvard's Ross Terrill, a leading China specialist whose views have generally been considered sympathetic to Peking, has recently confessed that he can no longer come to China's defense. Dr. Terrill's earlier hopes that the strength of Chinese culture would be capable of digesting Marxism and moving on, that China would ultimately reject the Stalinism of the Soviet Union, have, he writes, been dashed.
Fox Butterfield, the first New York Times correspondent stationed in Peking since before the ''liberation'' of 1949, concludes his book on China by quoting a young Chinese woman who asserts that were China to open its doors, everyone would flee - to the United States.
The return of the pendulum to the grimmer view of China is echoed in press reports about Chinese in the US. Hu Na, a female tennis star, became a minor cause celebre last year when the US government granted her political asylum after a long delay. She was being pressured into joining the Communist Party, Hu Na declared. Given the divisiveness of Communist Party politics, she was likely to be used as a political pawn.
Other celebrated figures have disappeared from the limelight with the demise of the faction to which they had hitched their political star. Wang Bingzhan, the first Chinese to receive a PhD abroad since 1949, created a similar stir when he defected several years ago in order ''to promote in China a democratic reform.'' The Chinese language newspaper he started in New York, China Spring, listed among its editors Wei Jingsheng and other political activists now imprisoned in China for their dissident views.
In all, about a thousand Chinese have applied for political asylum here in the last few years. What most reports have failed to note, however, is that the bulk of the applicants are not China's students and scholars but visitors here on short-term visas, visiting their relatives who fled in 1949. Most applications are refused.
How accurate a reflection of Chinese images of themselves is this, the latest swing of the American pendulum? Not very, I thought, when I set about answering Song Erli.
The China about which returned Americans have written is a China I recognize, too. But I saw something more there, something that others seemed to count as less important. I saw both the hope that so many Chinese had for their future and the remarkable resilience of a people who had suffered so much.
''My generation is the most miserable, most unfortunate generation in China's history,'' said a young man who had come under attack during the Cultural Revolution and spent nine years of his youth in the countryside. ''The 'gang of four' took the springtime of my youth and smashed it to the ground. I can never recover those years. But now I have hope.'' In my interviews throughout China, I saw a patriotic commitment to the modernization of China that seemed, among those I knew, universally shared. One woman I met, a scientist, had returned to her homeland from the West only shortly before the Cultural Revolution began. She had lost her husband to China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. In 1978, when the turbulence was over and restitutions were being made, she was approached by high-ranking officials and told that they would understand should she choose to leave. But she stayed.
''Why do I choose to stay and work in my fatherland?'' she asked.
''China is a large country, and its population is huge. But its science and technology, its education and culture, are backward. The standard of living of its people is low. I believe that what I am doing now is still of use to my country. That is the reason I stay. I am Chinese.''
Hers is a sentiment echoed repeatedly by Chinese studying here in the United States. As their visas have expired, one by one I have said goodbye to my Chinese friends who came for a year. One by one I have tried to ask how they felt about their return.
It was the ebullient and cosmopolitan physicist Li Weiguo, now in his 40s, who best summed up their views.
''I think the Chinese people need me more than people in the United States,'' he said. ''If I thought only of myself, maybe I would stay. I have gotten used to life here. There is more political freedom in this society. In China, you can't be against socialism, Marxist-Leninism, Mao Tse-tung thought, the party.
''In China, there is no capitalism, so there is really no democracy. If I were a materialist, maybe I would stay. I could have a color television, eat good food. . . . But if I think of China, of my motherland, I want to go back. I have to think of my value to society. It's not that I don't like America. I just like China more.''
For some, the reasons are more practical. A number believe they are slighted by their American counterparts and sense that Chinese-American scholars here are still regarded with a measure of condescension. In China, intellectuals have traditionally been accorded great respect.
''Here in the US, I would always be someone else's research assistant,'' said one scientist. ''In China, I am a professor, I can do my own research, head my own laboratory.''
In 1978-79, the American image of a China struggling to be free was briefly strengthened by the short-lived ''democracy wall'' in Peking. This optimistic outburst of liberal sentiment was enthusiastically reported by Western journalists and fed our own wishful thinking.
Many of the Chinese I met expressed sympathy with the democractic ideals espoused by the now-imprisoned Wei Jingsheng, who had spearheaded the movement. But their greater sympathy was reserved for Deng Xiaoping and the difficulties he confronts in charting China's post-Mao, post-Cultural Revolution course in the face of no small opposition from both the military, whose power was considerably enhanced by the Cultural Revolution, and the Communist Party itself , much of which owes its membership to that tragic episode.
''Too rapid reform,'' said one, ''would tumble the cart and give pretext for a leftist military coup.''
''I have some sympathy for Wei Jingsheng,'' said another, ''but I don't quite agree with him. The changes he was calling for were too rapid, and to pursue such radical changes now could only bring another disaster to China.''
Another disaster to China?
Yes, because if American images of China have rarely been an accurate reflection of China's images of itself, China has had its political swings, too.
The difference between the Cultural Revolution and earlier swings of the political pendulum is that during the Cultural Revolution, the sweep was broader , wider, its swath affecting not tens or hundreds of thousands of people but millions and tens of millions. This relentless swing has been reflected in turn in Chinese images of themselves.
Once a disaster like the Cultural Revolution has occurred, the possibility that such a disaster could recur can be permanently seared in memory, altering the way human beings perceive their world.
''I believe there will be another Cultural Revolution just like I believe there will be other wars,'' said one survivor.
This is the fear that led many of my friends in China to rely on sleeping pills at night, still to be wakened by their own nightmares; that leads them to panic at a knock on the door, because the house searches of the Cultural Revolution were always preceded by a knock.
It is the fear that necessitates my protecting the anonymity of so many of my friends, the fear that led one to beg, ''No one must know we talked. No one. If there were another Cultural Revolution, I would not survive.''
Above all, it is the fear that is kindled with any indication that China's intellectuals and writers are being subjected to renewed criticism, for the Cultural Revolution began, innocuously enough, not as full-blown struggle, but as apparently academic debate.
And in the past few months, China has witnessed a campaign against ''spiritual pollution,'' which many intellectuals believe is directed against them. ''Bourgeois'' liberalism, humanism, individualism - values we hold dear - have all been attacked. And those most likely to suffer for holding those values are those who learned them from us here.
However, most Chinese recognize that current policies in their country are not really harbingers of history repeating itself.
''We must distinguish between our own apprehension and the facts,'' said one. ''We know that the government needs the intellectuals. But the party sees something subversive developing among some intellectuals, and they want to suppress this trend before it becomes too powerful. This is not a repetition of the Cultural Revolution. But it is a repetition of some of the policies that led to the Cultural Revolution.''
It is the fear that the attacks of the Cultural Revolution could be renewed, if not for everyone, that is leading some Chinese now in the US not to return.
I went to New York some weeks ago to say goodbye to my friend, Lao Wang. She fixed me dinner at her apartment, a quiet feast, sumptuous as all meals served to guests at a Chinese home are apt to be. It was only after we had eaten that I realized this was unlikely to be goodbye.
Lao Wang did not come here to study Western values, or even to let them seep through. But she nonetheless did learn Western values, and they did seep through. Today, she is afraid that were she to return, she would be attacked. She is afraid of having to make a self-confession, criticizing herself for her liberalism, her humanism, her individualism. She is afraid of being removed from her position on the faculty of a Shanghai university and sent to some remote and impoverished inland province, consigned to teach middle school away from the city, the family, the friends, the colleagues that have been the center of her existence. She is afraid that she will not be allowed to publish again.
But Lao Wang has already been attacked for her bourgeois values. She has already been exiled to impoverishment in China's countryside. She has already made her self-criticism. For she was one of the victims of the Cultural Revolution.
''I am tired,'' she says. It is an agonizing, lonely decision.
''My roots are in China, my family, my husband, my children. I will always be a stranger here,'' she says.
Lao Wang thinks that the situation for China's intellectuals will get progressively worse for the next five years. After that, she doesn't know. Maybe then the situation will be better. Maybe then she can go home.
A letter from Song Erli was waiting upon my return from New York. Song had been one of the first of the friends to whom I had said goodbye. He had left for China last June. ''China, my dear motherland, my lovely country,'' he wrote. ''I can never tell you how bitterly I love it.'' But he wanted to return to the US.
''Perhaps you remember the final lines of T.S. Eliot's poem, the 'Journey of the Magi?' '' he wrote. ''I love that poem'': We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.
So you did not need me to answer your question, after all, Song Erli. You know now that so long as you, among the best and the brightest of China, remain alien among your own people, so wounded you wish death before your time, we cannot really write ''nothing but good.''
Our only other choice is to remain silent, as now you must. But your voice, too, needs to be heard.