FOR many years that distant crowded land called ''Red China'' defied efforts to penetrate its ''inscrutable'' face. A flood of books on history and politics brought many photographs. But abstractions of ideology and statistics blocked out much sense of three-dimensional human faces.
Since Western journalists, students, and scholars have begun to visit or live in China, however, the facade has begun to crumble. A picture has emerged of personal intrigues and resentments closely intertwined with the jockeying for power at every level of government, schools, and other Chinese institutions. These have been at least as important as revolutionary slogans in shaping the vast upheavals that China has experienced since the Communists won power in 1949 .
The other side of this coin is the personal humiliation, loss of jobs and education, and sometimes loss of life that hundreds of thousands of Chinese have faced because of alleged wrong thinking or wrong class background. Until recently, foreign journalists and scholars were unable to interview those at every level of Chinese life who could attest to the human costs of revolution.
Now vastly different types of books have put human faces on both sides of the coin. Australian-born Ross Terrill's account of life ''at the top'' joins work by authors Judith Shapiro and Liang Heng to warn the outside world that in China , smiles and slogans are scarcely what they seem.
Terrill's ''The White-Boned Demon'' tracks the career of Jiang Qing, Mao Tse-tung's now-imprisoned widow. This former Shanghai movie actress never forgave those of her husband's colleagues who snubbed her when she displaced Mao's third wife in 1938. Mme. Jiang got her revenge when, with Mao's backing, she helped engineer the mid-1960s purges of China's high leaders, including many who, Dr. Terrill suggests, still regarded her as Mao's concubine. This portrait of ambition and revenge suggests that, even under communism, personal court politics plays as big a part as it did under earlier emperors.
Terrill's useful account, which hovers somewhere between the authenticity of researched biography and the color of fiction, runs counter to the tendency of earlier researchers to play down the importance of factions based on personal rivalry.But the book must be taken as suggestive rather than definitive, since Dr. Terrill's effort to look into Jiang Qing's mind in any given situation is not always convincing. How does he know, for example, that in Mme. Jiang's ''. . . own eyes she was 'Mao's secretary'; in Mao's eyes she was just 'Mao's woman' ''? Too often, Terrill's apparent desire to know what is often unknowable reads like a soap opera. The book lacks a usable footnote system and adequate explanations as to how the author evaluated conflicting accounts from interviewed sources who rarely had a objective ''neutral'' view of Jiang Quing.
If ''The White-Boned Demon'' shows the importance of the human dimension ''at the top,'' ''Son of Revolution'' shows in full color detail how revolution ordered ''from the top'' disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands.
''Son of the Revolution'' is doubly unusual, because it is a story behind a story. It is told by Judith Shapiro, an American student of Chinese language and anthropology, and Liang Heng, the Chinese student she married. The book, a project that developed during their romance and struggle for the right to marry, is based on on the experiences of Liang.
Miss Shapiro met Liang Heng in 1979 while bearing the Chinese name Xia Zhu-li (foreigners living or working in China often take Chinese names). At the time, she was working as a ''foreign expert'' teaching English at the foreign languages department of Hunan University. Teacher Xia, this volume recalls, ''wore baggy blue pants, and a short sleeved Chinese blouse, and her hair was pulled back in a single braid.'' From a distance, she might have been Chinese except for one thing: She was barefoot.
The life story of Liang (who later became a student at Columbia University) gave Miss Shapiro a human dimension to her studies, and a unique perspective on the revolutionary upheavals that had shaken China since the ''Great Leap Forward'' in the late 1950s.
As the book describes it, Liang, a handsome star basketball player, had no trouble finding Chinese girlfriends. But he felt a special satisfaction with an easy-to-talk-to foreigner, with whom he need not feel inhibitions based on class background, political viewpoints, or the humiliations his family had suffered since the early 1960s.
This is the story of a young lad's loss of innocence. At the age of 12 he was swept up in the excitement of marching through Hunan Province and up to Peking as part of the Red Guard movement mobilized by Mao Tse-tung and his wife, Jiang Qing, to unseat, humiliate, and arrest thousands of governmental, educational, and intellectual officials accused of ''following the capitalist road.''
For Liang, it seemed at first to be great fun - until it became clear that even his ever loyal communist father (who divorced his first wife because she was uncovered as a ''rightist'' in the late 1950s) would be humiliated and banished to the countryside. Young Liang gradually saw revolutionary optimism deteriorate into brutal beatings, and a callousness toward human life that ended with senseless gunfights in the streets.
This is the story of just one individual. But it is also the story of a generation.