From China, a chance to see the process of discovery

Hunched over the counter on a high stool, Ha Yi-Qi holds the delicate bamboo skeleton of a kite in one hand. With the other, he dips a long-handled brush into a pot of white paste, applying it fastidiously to the frame and sticking on strips of silk paper. Now and then the young fourth-generation Chinese kitemaker pauses to speak through his interpreter with onlookers across the counter. At one point he stops to write up an $80 sales ticket for a kite he spent four days making.

And all the while a four-year-old blond American boy - his chin just touching the counter as his father holds him off the floor - watches with utter fascination.

China: 7,000 Years of Discovery (at the Pacific Science Center through Aug. 31) is that kind of exhibition. Designed to highlight the discoveries made by the ancient Chinese in everything from bronze casting and printing to calligraphy and batikmaking, it is no mere collection of objects in glass cases. Instead, it features 18 Chinese artisans (many of whom, like Mr. Ha, know only a few words of English) steadfastly pursuing their crafts before a steady stream of onlookers.

The Yankee interest in all things Chinese, dating back to the China trade and the days of the clipper ships, received a fillip with the visit of President Richard M. Nixon to China in 1972 - and a further boost in 1980 and 1981 when an exhibition titled ''The Great Bronze Age of China'' toured leading American museums. The current exhibition, though, is no repeat and has few genuine antiques: The items are largely replicas, and the intent is less to display the artistry than to demonstrate the inventiveness of the race.

Here, for instance, one can learn that:

* The Chinese invented the compass (actually a piece of lodestone carved in the shape of a spoon and balanced so that the handle always pointed south) some 12 centuries before the device arrived in Europe.

* Gutenberg's movable-type printing process (invented in 1445) was foreshadowed in 1045 by a Chinese inventor, Bi Sheng, whose book was printed from ceramic tiles fastened with wax onto a metal tray.

* The first ''ticking'' water clock, based on an idea perhaps as much as 4, 600 years old, was built by Su Song (a kind of 11th-century Chinese Edison) in 1068 - and reinvented in the West some 200 years later.

* Chinese cleverness also developed early versions of the wheelbarrow, the planetarium, the odometer, the gunpowder rocket, and even the seismograph - a highly wrought urn (replicated here) which responded to earth tremors by noisily dropping small balls from the mouths of bronze dragons into the mouths of bronze toads waiting below.

It is the artisans, however, who make this exhibition come alive - for preschoolers and adults alike. As museums across the country have discovered, a reenactment of old-time crafts seems guaranteed to appeal to the inborn American pragmatism. Judging from the crowds here (where the exhibition has already had some sellout days since opening March 1), the crafts of ancient and modern China are no exception. Here the crowds press close around the papermaker, watching him dip ground plant fibers out of a vat of watery glue onto fine mesh net. They pause to watch potters sitting almost astride their wheels, which they turn now and then with a few thrusts of a heavy wooden staff. And they line up to stare at the bronze casters, the silk weavers, and the embroiderers, all going about their work with a sober determination.

The $2.4 million exhibition (mounted in cooperation with the Chinese Association of Science and Technology of the People's Republic of China, and with the Ontario Science Center in Toronto, where it opened last year) made an intermediate stop in Chicago before its arrival here on the grounds of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. Should you have to stand in line to get in, the spacious architecture, decorative arches, and broad pools of the former USA Pavilion provide pleasant waiting.

One caution: With crowds swelling toward summer-vacation time and with some prognosticators wondering whether total attendance might match that of the popular ''King Tut'' exhibition that came here six years ago, you're well advised to phone or write ahead for tickets. Call (206) 628-0888 for credit-card purchases; or write Ticketmaster, The Kingdome, Room 38, 207 South King Street, Seattle, Wash. 98104. Hours: noon to 5 through June 8, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. starting June 9 and on spring weekends.

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