Popular Chinese drama marches to a different beat of practical heroism

A company political officer who tries to escape the battlefield by being transferred back to headquarters. A recoilless rifle round that fails to explode at the crucial moment because it was made during the Cultural Revolution.

A soldier who fails to get a medal because he was killed cutting sugar cane for his thirsty comrades and left no diary full of ''noble thoughts.''

These are some of the ingredients of a novel based on incidents during China's month-long ''defensive counterattack against Vietnam'' in 1979. The novel by Army writer Li Cunbao was published last year and has just been turned into a successful play.

The novel, called ''Flower Wreath at the Foot of High Mountains,'' won an award as one of the best works of fiction of 1982. It develops the story in a way that is acceptable to party and military authorities, since the political officer reforms himself and becomes a battlefield hero.

But in the process it depicts, perhaps for the first time in post-1949 literature, the daily gripes and dissatisfactions of junior military officers and men. The 9th Company is no model group. It is not happy about being transferred south to fight the Vietnamese. Jin Kailai, who is chosen to be deputy company commander, is a perennial grumbler openly cynical of the pep talks political officer Zhao Mengsheng gives.

And Zhao, who is the main character of the story, is the son of a general and a high-ranking woman cadre in the People's Liberation Army. Before 1949 his mother fought bravely for the revolution. Since then she has become an expert in internal diplomacy and backdoorsmanship.

Zhao's mother has been trying to get her son transferred to a comfortable city job. But the sudden order to move south upsets her plans, and all she can do is to try to move him out of a front-line position and back to Army headquarters.

Her efforts are rebuffed by the Army commander, General Lei, who is nicknamed ''god of thunder'' for his peppery temperament. He tells the entire group of officers under him (assembled one day to see the film ''Patton'') that ''an infinitely resourceful high-ranking lady'' has asked him to give special consideration to her son.

A string of expletives follows, and the general swears he will order her precious son to be the first to dynamite the enemy stronghold. Zhao is humiliated by the speech. Although the general does not divulge his name, everyone in his company knows who he is and treats him with open scorn.

Zhao's company is selected to be one of the first to cross into enemy territory, and an Army journalist comes to interview the men, hoping to hear ''noble thoughts.'' Jin Kailai, the deputy commander, pats his breast pocket and tells his friends jokingly to open it after his death and take out his diary which will contain all the ''noble thoughts'' they want.

Later, deep in enemy territory, the entire company is suffering from thirst, but Army regulations forbid them to despoil the villagers' fields. All the well water, they are told, has been poisoned by the Vietnamese ''devils.'' Jin Kailai goes off to cut down sugar cane for his men and is gravely wounded by a mine. But he brings the sugar cane back.

His comrades open his breast pocket at his request and find therein only a picture of his wife and four-year-old son - Jin's last wish is to die gazing at that photograph.

After the battle the whole company recommends Jin for a medal, saying the sugar cane saved their lives. But the recommendation is turned down because of his undistinguished ''political'' record and because he broke Army regulations in cutting the sugar cane.

The novel has its quota of ''good'' characters, among whom is the company commander Liang Sanxi. But Liang, also killed while pushing Zhao out of harm's way, comes from a poor peasant family and is saddled with debts incurred getting medical treatment for his father, who was badly beaten during the Cultural Revolution and who eventually dies of his wounds.

The night this reporter attended the play, the audience was filled with elderly officers of the People's Liberation Army and with young people. The novel has been enormously popular among the young and copies are difficult to obtain.

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