THE ``ghost made flesh'' appeared in the hotel doorway and his taut, wiry frame sprang forward to shake the hand of a stranger. Told only that a foreign journalist wanted to see him, Peng Ming had permission from his work unit to meet privately.
``The disaster of the Cultural Revolution fell on the Chinese people, who make up one-fourth of the world. So in this sense, it was a disaster for the world,'' said Mr. Peng, who was a conscientious and compelling Red Guard leader during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Peng did not need to warm to his subject. His delivery was intense and the words spilled out quickly, as if part of an ongoing conversation with an old friend. There was no discernible reluctance to speak his mind.
Peng's story has been told in a new book, ``After the Nightmare,'' by Liang Heng and Judith Shapiro (Alfred A. Knopf, New York). As a dedicated young Marxist, Peng was Mr. Liang's political mentor. He rose from the level of local Red Guard leader in Changsha to high political posts in Peking. Mr. Liang described Peng as ``a ghost made flesh,'' perhaps because he once disappeared into China's prison system for some years.
Betrayed by a rival faction in 1969, Peng spent more than five years in solitary confinement in Qincheng Prison, where Mao Tse-Tung's fourth wife, Jiang Qing, is now serving a life sentence for her leading role in the Cultural Revolution. His most vivid impressions of those days were the shouts of other inmates (sometimes talking only to themselves) and hearing the Socialist anthem, the ``Internationale,'' being sung by prisoners he never met.
Despite harsh treatment, his passion for politics remains strong, and his belief in socialism appears undiminished.
``It's ironic that China is a socialist country which upholds communist ideals, but that we experienced the great tragedy of the Cultural Revolution which has left deep wounds in people's hearts,'' he said.
Peng blames the derailment of the party under Mao on opportunists and not on the party system itself. Even so, his admission to the party last year seems inexplicable in view of his years of imprisonment by party authorities.
``I still think socialism is superior to capitalism and that communist theories are scientific. But mistakes are unavoidable when theories are put into practice,'' he reasoned. ``Now we know that Marxism doesn't force people to believe in it. It should be accepted voluntarily. This is the new, advanced theory,'' Peng says.
If this energetic soldier of Mao had been born 10 years later, author Liang speculates, he might have been found at Peking's ``Democracy Wall'' in 1979, where students posted their political opinions and angrily questioned a system that they felt betrayed the hopes of so many. But Peng's mind seemed transfixed with the ideals of an earlier period, which -- for him -- retained their brilliance long after others had abandoned them.
His account of the past lacked references to suffering -- his own or that of others. He often said, however, that the books he had read on the Cultural Revolution were somewhat ``superficial,'' including another book by Liang and Shapiro, ``Son of the Revolution,'' about Liang's experiences growing up in Changsha.
After several hours, Peng brought out the treasure he had shared with his friend Liang: a post-card-sized cloth picture he secretly crafted in prison from bits of colored materials. It was a token of his idealism, a miniature collage of revolutionary scenes and symbols. It now looked more like evidence of his love for China than a relic of Maoism, despite the Chinese characters reading ``Long live Chairman Mao'' on the back. He still seemed full of wonder at the scenes in the cloth picture, including the Daqing oil fields, Mao's hometown of Shaoshan, the model commune at Dazhai, and the site of a brief fight on the Sino-Soviet border in 1969.
Peng said one lesson of the Cultural Revolution is that emphasis on the personality of leaders is not needed. He pointed to changes under Deng Xiaoping's leadership, and welcomed the recent publication of political cartoons in a newspaper including caricatures of leader Deng and party General Secretary Hu Yaobang for the first time. ``This will bring the leaders back to the people,'' he said.
Peng fully supports the proposal made by Ba Jin, chairman of the Chinese Writers Association, to set up a museum so people will remember the ``years of turmoil.'' The proposal has received little public comment, though many intellectuals privately endorse the idea.
``The museum should be built like the war museums in Europe. This would follow the party's policy of ``seeking truth from facts,'' he said, citing Deng's favorite quotation from Mao.
Asked if his friend Liang was right to have worshiped the ground he walked on during his days as a Red Guard leader, Peng didn't hesitate to answer.
``He was right! At that time I was living the life of a true revolutionary. We shared a room together, but Liang rarely saw me. I would get up early and return late, working hard all day to make revolution. I was a revolutionary model for him, and he later told Judith [Liang's American wife] that I was his enlightened teacher.''
Peng has recently been promoted to a management post at the Hunan television station and counts himself fortunate to have a job using his talents as a musical composer. He is proud of a composition he wrote for a TV special last year on Mao's historic return to Shaoshan.
``I still admire Mao's earlier years, though you can't compare the attitude of people here in Hunan Province [where Mao was born] with those of Stalin's home state of Georgia [in the Soviet Union].''
He said Hunan people don't worship Mao -- at least not anymore.
Third of four articles on the 10th anniversary of Mao's death. Next: The current attitudes of China's leaders.