Luding, China — PAUSING with one foot on Luding Bridge, Li Guangshan praises his comrades in China's communist revolution who made the bucking footbridge a symbol of rebel valor. Red Army commandos crawled on the bridge's frame of iron chains, across the roiling Dadu River, toward enemy machine-gun fire in a 1935 assault.
``The attack was so thrilling and inspiring - we really admired the bravery of the Red Army,'' Mr. Li said above the roar of river rapids 50 feet below.
The battle roused Li and other peasants as much as the storming of the Bastille and the bitter winter at Valley Forge steeled rebels in France and America. For decades after the revolution, the Army invoked similar legendary heroics from the 6,000-mile ``Long March'' to maintain its power, surpassed in China only by the Communist Party.
But today, soldiers like Li can no longer rely on combat lore like the Luding battle to sustain their prestige in the torrential change in Chinese social values.
The power and esteem of the military have waned during the 10 years of economic reform. Its fallen status is in part a casualty of peace: China faces fewer military threats from outside than ever before, particularly since it began improving ties with the Soviet Union.
But the Army is also the victim of the internal shift of values and political priorities since 1978, when senior leader Deng Xiaoping subordinated Marxist dogma and revolutionary ardor to his drive to build the economy.
Mr. Deng has cut the military's share of revenue and directed funding to the more productive sectors of industry and technology. He has made the military defer to civilian control, trying to ensure that it no longer uses its power arbitrarily, as in periods since the revolution.
The decline in the military's reputation and influence means that soldiers and veterans like Li can no longer revel in public admiration.
``People aren't as impressed with soldiers as they used to be,'' said Li, a retired deputy battalion commander. In 1945 he slogged out of a paddy field in Henan Province with other teen-age peasants and quit a village militia to join the communist Army.
``When I was young, everyone thought people in the Red Army were supermen,'' he said.
Times now have changed. Betraying widespread disdain, Chinese have vandalized or commandeered military facilities, stolen military hardware, and extorted millions of dollars from local bases, Chief of Staff Chi Haotian wrote in a party journal, Seeking Truth. ``In some localities the incidents of ruining national defense facilities happen one after another,'' he said.
Also, local governments, responsible for mustering military recruits, have recently dispatched below-average youths, Mr. Chi wrote. Many Chinese would rather work in industry than in the Army, where a foot soldier earns just $6.50 a month - one-fourth of the salary of most factory workers.
The slump in the reputation of China's military reflects longstanding public antipathy stemming primarily from the Army's abuse of its vast power during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and in the centuries before the communists took control.
Mao Tse-tung and other leaders in the '20s and '30s tried to break the long legacy of the military and regional warlords as roguish forces in society. They promoted the ideal that a communist Army of peasants would sympathize with the needs and aims of the peasantry.
After the revolution, Mao gave the military enormous political power by directing thousands of soldiers into government and Communist Party posts.
``All but a few of us had been workers or peasants so we got along very well with the people and knew exactly what they wanted,'' said Li, who was assigned as a government cadre in Luding. Like Li, many of these new officials retained close ties to the armed forces while holding posts as high as those in the ruling Politburo.
The good will between civilians and soldiers was shattered by the ultraradical Cultural Revolution, when Mao cast China into civil war and then gave the military virtually unlimited power to restore order.
``Chinese people remember with great resentment how the Army took advantage of the chaos during the Cultural Revolution and abused its power,'' another Chinese veteran said.
Mao transformed the military from the champion to the overlord of Chinese. While some officers relished the power, others loathed it, Li said. An acquaintance of Li in the Army, torn by remorse, committed suicide after ordering soldiers to quell an uprising in a nearby town, he said.
Deng has demoted the high standing of the military by cutting its troop strength by 800,000. And he has changed today's 3.2 million-man Army from a mass-based, grass-roots Army stressing ``human-wave warfare'' to an elite, specialized, and professional force.
Deng has also curtailed the political power of the military. Reshaping the party's paramount, five-member Politburo standing committee last fall, he replaced himself and three other veterans with younger technocrats inexperienced in military affairs.
Under reform, the military has waged a losing battle for funding. Deng has cut its share of state spending from 17.5 percent in 1979 to 8.2 percent this year, ordering it to join the campaign to build the economy.
Seeking a supplement of hard currency abroad, China's military has made controversial missile sales to Iran and Saudi Arabia and become the world's fourth-largest exporter of arms to the third world.
The military has sought extra funds from its factories by beating its swords into plowshares, producing fans, refrigerators, and other consumer products. Following state urgings and incentives, most of China's 30,000 inefficient weapons factories have competed since 1986 with civilian manufacturers in making peacetime goods.
The military publicly supports Deng's pragmatic efforts to raise production. But in private, some soldiers complain bitterly that they are treated poorly because of their waning status.
Li said that under reform, some Chinese have forgotten China's revolutionary goals and betrayed the veterans who fought to realize those ideals.
``With the reform, county officials are too concerned about money and they don't care about us old soldiers,'' he said. ``Sometimes my tears almost fall.''
Li keeps his spirits high with his comrades. Most days he and about two dozen veterans in Luding, dressed in faded, blue Mao suits, take their bamboo cages of songbirds to a local park. Amid the whistling of the birds, they talk of families and fighting the Japanese invaders and the nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek.
The decline in the military's prestige under reform has also tested the morale of active soldiers, Li said. Infantry from China's occupation force in Tibet, angered by their reassignments, hurled stones through windows last march along Luding's main street, he said.
``I thought they were bandits instead of members of the People's Liberation Army,'' Li said.