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Conflicting images of China

By Anne F. Thurston, Special to The Christian Science MonitorAnne Thurston is an associate in research at Harvard's Fairbanks Center for East Asian Research. She is working on a book about the Cultural Revolution. / February 1, 1984

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?

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''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.