If it's an easy, superficial sampling of the Chinese you're after, better stick to egg rolls and fortune cookies in your local Oriental restaurant. But, if you're interested in getting to the heart of the 1 billion people who make up the People's Republic of China, reserve one hour a week for the next three months for The Heart of the Dragon (PBS, Monday May 6, 8-9 p.m., for 12 successive Mondays, check local listings). In itself, this series constitutes an incisive yet thoroughly entertaining course in China, its history, its geography, its people. ``The Heart of the Dragon'' may not be all new to you -- last year an NBC special with Tom Brokaw utilized more than an hour of the original which was shot by Ash Films, a consortium of Sino-English production companies for executive producer Peter Montanon. It won a 1984 International Emmy after it was first shown in England. But now, for the first time, the entire 12- hour series is being shown in the United States, co-produced for PBS by MacNeil/Lehrer/Gannett and South Carolina ETV.
Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer, of PBS's ``NewsHour,'' act as co-hosts. Each episode of the series includes a knowledgeable guest who will update the film wherever important events have evolved since the film was made (with Ash paying the Chinese government $1 million for the right to shoot all over the People's Republic of China).
This is no once-over-lightly, Great Wall and Yangtze River cruise production -- it manages to give viewers an honest look at the daily lives of artists, scientists, farmers, factory workers, politicians, public officials, and even a few free-enterpreneurs.
The series is divided into specific episodes dealing with ``universal activities'' such as eating, working, marrying, mediating, and worshiping to give Western viewers a better understanding of the roots of Chinese culture and philosophy as well as contemporary life. Robert MacNeil calls it ``a kind of nonimpressionistic documentary,'' but I would describe it more as neorealistic, since it goes beyond reality, combining videotapes, stills, and rare archival footage, underscored with much sensitivity and depth of understanding.
Perhaps you may recall in the Brokaw documentary a sequence in which a mediation committee attempts to effect a reconciliation between two young married people. Because of time problems, the NBC documentary had to cut short what turns out to be a revealing longer episode focusing on male/female relationships in a society in which the extended family plays a large part in the dynamics. It's all there in ``The Heart.'' And much more, since the 12-hour length allows producer Montagnon to dawdle where dawdling is productive, to meander where meandering adds depth, and contour to the overall canvas.
``The Heart of the Dragon'' is not ``gazing at flowers from horseback,'' as the Chinese disdainfully refer to 10-day tourism. It was filmed over a period of 18 months in many parts of China which had previously been off-limits to foreign journalists. It manages with the exquisite skill of a delicate Chinese brush painting not only to show the face and body of China, but as its title suggests, the true heart of China as well.