Moving saga of Chinese family

Spring Moon: A Novel of China, by Bette Bao Lord. New York: Harper & Row, A Cass Canfield Book. 464 pp. $14.95.

This extraordinarily good novel presents a panorama of those events which have precipitated China from one crisis to another during the past century. The personages, members of a privileged family, range from the most old-fashioned clan elders and their wives to the half-Westernized ''returned students,'' and the thrusting younger generations, whose world is collapsing around them.

One's interest is held from start to finish, so well organized is the complicated mise en scene of this necessarily tragic account, where every character is caught up in the toils of history. For all its beauty, elegance and scholarship, the life of the Chang clan of Soochow was headed for catastrophe, inevitably bound up with the terrible agonies of their country.

At first, one is tempted to assume that this is another long and involved Chinese family history, sometimes charming and significant, often trivial, but one is soon disabused. It becomes apparent that we have here a careful and vivid account of the crucial years of the dissolution of the Manchu Empire, the attempt to establish a republic, two Japanese wars, the Kuomintang's struggle with the communists, and the latter's seizure of the country. The tempo quickens , and the language, at the beginning often banal, strengthens and becomes convincing.

The author does not attempt to explain or interpret, letting events speak for themselves as national situations are transposed into family affairs. However, gradually her point of view asserts itself between the lines; she will speak of the ''unequal treaties'' and the rage and resentment they aroused, without comment, later telling us how the Changs took refuge in those very foreign enclaves the treaties made possible, as the only places that were safe to work.

She prefaces her epilogue with an account of the communists' heroic crossing of the Tatu River, and in that very chapter describes how the party murdered its own, one of the Changs, Lustrous Jade, who had been on the Long March and served the ''Great Helmsman'' for decades.

Lustrous Jade's father was killed during the Boxer Rebellion, a movement he resisted as evil. His child, at first under the influence of Chinese tradition, is placed in a mission school for her own safety, becomes a Christian, and espouses Western ideals. Her fury at the terms of the Versailles Treaty leads her to renounce these convictions, and she becomes an ardent communist, finally to be denounced and killed by the people she supported.

Her uncle, Noble Talent, who spent his whole life in the service of one revolutionary plot after another, only to see each one fail, and who witnesses the ruin of the country, presents even more fully the great dilemma of the people.

Why did all this have to be? Why could the Chinese not establish a just and stable government? What lies behind this terrible chronic misery? The gentle reader must draw his or her own conclusions; for some the writing on the wall is plain.

Finally this is a handsomely produced volume, with delightfully apt quotations as chapter headings, enriching each section.

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