When communes break up ...... gap between China's small and large families widens

By , Jonathan Unger, a sociologist at the University of Kansas, is the author of ''Education under Mao'' and co-author of ''Chen Village: The History of a Peasant Community in Mao's China.''

Peasants from nine of China's provinces, interviewed in Hong Kong during the past year, confirm the Chinese government's claims that rural living standards are rising rapidly following the recent breakup of China's agricultural collectives.

But the 28 interviewees, who work in Hong Kong and regularly return to their home villages to see their families, present a complex picture of economic change, with nagging problems alongside the economic gains.

For the past few years, peasants have not worked the fields collectively in squads, as they had for the preceding 21/2 decades. Under proddings from Peking, officials in the home villages of 27 of the 28 interviewees have divided the land among the peasant households, and families now plant and harvest their own crops on allotted plots.

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They may not buy or sell the land, but they are allowed to purchase large equipment such as tractors, and in most regions they may even hire farm laborers. In many districts, village factories and other collective enterprises have been rented out to the highest private bidder.

Interviewees agree that a substantial majority of the peasants were happy to decollectivize. Since the early 1970s, Maoist policies had strangled agricultural productivity, souring peasants on the collectives. Peasants had been required to experiment with agricultural techniques totally unsuited to local conditions, had been obliged to labor during the slack seasons for little pay on public works projects of no direct benefit to them, and had repeatedly seen the size of their private plots and the numbers of their poultry and pigs reduced, to force them to concentrate on raising grain. In addition, they were forbidden to grow other, more profitable crops on fields woefully unsuited to grain. Discouraged, most peasants sloughed off in their work.

The present system has freed peasants from the inertia and frustrations of the '70s. But government policies still do not give peasants a completely free hand to grow what they want. To assure stable supplies of cheap foodstuffs for the urban work force, the government still imposes on villages a quota, usually of grain, that must be sold to the state at low prices.

Now each family must find a way to meet its portion of the quotas. If it cannot grow enough, it must buy expensive grain on the free market to resell to the state at a loss.

Thus, when the division of collective fields was decreed in 1980-1981, families with only one working member and several small children - in many villages, about one-quarter of the populace - were adamantly opposed. They were afraid they would be hard put to both meet the unprofitable quotas and feed themselves. Before, village granaries had guaranteed grain to them even when they did not have money on hand to pay for it.

In close to half the villages in the sample, yields have risen enough to dispel the fears of these families. But in just as many villages, climatic constraints have prevented productivity from climbing much. There, the families with few hands and many small mouths to feed are worse off than under the collectives.

In contrast, even in these villages, families with strong adults and several teen-aged children are doing well. They can quickly harvest a grain crop and then replant some of their fields with vegetables and other high-priced commercial crops. They have time to grow animal feed on the hillsides and raise large numbers of pigs and poultry. They rent village ponds and raise carp for urban markets. In some families, a grown son can be spared from the fields to work on urban construction projects, where wages are very high by Chinese standards.

In villages within reach of urban markets and jobs, some of these entrepreneurial families have doubled or tripled their incomes. They are competing to build larger homes and are buying TV sets and cassette recorders.

The nub of the present difficulties is that the quota system prevents the labor-poor families from emulating them. They are forced by the grain quotas to restrict their efforts to the lowest-paid type of agricultural production. This, more than any other reason, is responsible for the widening gap between households.

The new system contains other problems, too. To ensure a fair division of land, each family received at least two plots, one of good quality and one of poorer land. The resulting patchwork of minuscule parcels impedes irrigation and makes it difficult to use machinery. Pesticides and herbicides cannot easily be applied to one's own slivers of land without affecting neighbors' crops. Disruptive fights over access to water, which collectivization 21/2 decades ago had put an end to, are erupting again.

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