LIVING amid the teeming alleys and communal gray-brick courtyards of Beijing, Qiu Ming knows the anguish of loneliness in a crowd. One day six years ago, socially ostracized and humiliated by her divorce, Ms. Qiu attempted suicide by throwing herself into the path of an oncoming car on a busy Beijing street.
The car braked inches away and Qiu was unhurt, but she has never forgotten the alienation she felt as she was surrounded by a gawking rush-hour swarm.
``I would have been satisfied if anyone had just listened to me a little,'' said Qiu, a broad-faced woman with sensitive eyes and a girlish voice. ``But no one gave me any comfort.''
Today, Qiu offers hundreds of thousands the caring advice she once so desperately needed. She is China's ``Dear Abby.''
``I decided to be the one to say `I'll help you' when people had troubles,'' Qiu said in an interview.
Nicknamed ``big sister'' or ``auntie'' by those who consult her, Qiu writes a weekly advice column for the official China Women's News, which has about 300,000 subscribers nationwide. Qiu's ``letter box,'' the first of its kind in a Chinese newspaper, has won wide popularity since it first appeared on Jan. 8, 1988.
``I have had a love affair, a marriage, a baby, and a divorce,'' Qiu wrote in her first letter to readers. ``I have tasted all the bitterness, both expressible and inexpressible, that a divorced woman can experience. ... I'd like to hear your innermost feelings, share your sorrows and troubles and, if possible, offer my advice.''
Letters to ``sister'' Qiu have poured in by the hundreds - from men and women, young and old, sophisticated urban intellectuals and illiterate peasants who dictate their woes to village scribes. Posted from across the nation, they cover topics ranging from romance and marriage to divorce, infidelity, and homosexuality.
Answering each letter personally, Qiu discovered that countless Chinese crave emotional support and moral guidance just as she once did. Such needs are intensifying as Confucian mores and Maoist puritanism clash with the new permissiveness of China's rapidly modernizing society, she says.
On the one hand, a decade of fast economic growth and rising prosperity has spurred a ``sexual revolution'' in China, with both premarital and extramarital sex increasingly common, according to the magazine Chinese Youth.
Many Chinese also seem less serious about marriage. The number of divorce cases handled by China's courts more than doubled last year compared to 1987, official statistics show. In big cities, for every 100 couples who marry, 30 register for divorce, according to the official China Daily. Many couples who seek divorce have been married only one or two years, the paper said.
On the other hand, deep-seated social prejudices against such liberal conduct lingers, leaving many Chinese - especially young people - torn between new urges and conservative values thousands of years old. Tormented by social pressure, some 140,000 Chinese each year commit suicide, the nation's leading cause of unnatural death.
Qiu says many Chinese turn to her for advice because they are ashamed to divulge their inner conflicts to family members or friends.
``Chinese people are very introverted,'' Qiu said. ``They don't want to reveal their worries to others for fear of losing face. They feel it is dangerous to talk about personal problems, even to a friend, because others might find out.''
Qiu can easily sympathize with such fears, which paralyzed her for several years.
Born the daughter of a high-ranking Communist Party official, Qiu had a relatively easy childhood and attended an elite girls' high school in Beijing. In keeping with the morally rigid 1950s and '60s, she camouflaged her femininity with baggy clothes and a plain hair style.
After Mao Zedong launched the radical Cultural Revolution in 1966, Qiu went to work on a farm in Manchuria, joining millions of other educated Chinese youths ``sent down'' to the countryside. She later joined the Army, returning to Beijing in the 1970s to attend a telecommunications college.
There, Qiu met a soldier from the countryside and married him, heeding the party's call to ``unite with peasants and workers.'' Through family connections, she helped her husband change jobs several times over the years until he landed a sought-after position in Beijing and secured residence in the capital. Two months later, he asked for a divorce.
Qiu discovered that her husband had loved a girl from his home village since his teens, but the woman had refused to marry him until he became a city resident.
Distraught and alone with a five-year-old daughter, Qiu confronted life in 1981 as a divorced woman, a status that in China bears the stigma of immorality and promiscuity.
``I was very traditional. I couldn't stand anyone saying one bad thing about me. But my fate wasn't arranged that way,'' said Qiu. ``After my husband left me, I felt worthless. No one believed I was a good woman.''
Qiu began eating lunch alone and rarely spoke to her colleagues at the computer institute where she worked. Her boss demanded an explanation if she bicycled to work five minutes late. Qiu's male colleagues avoided being alone with her in a room. Gossip-hungry neighbors peered silently at Qiu from darkened doorways as she came and went from her Beijing apartment.
One day in 1983, as Qiu stepped off a bus on a busy street near her home, a woman accosted her, slapped her face and accused her of seducing her husband, Qiu's colleague. The public disgrace was too much for Qiu, who rushed into oncoming traffic.
`AFTER that, I saw only two roads before me: I could learn from my troubles and start life anew, or call the world meaningless and try again to kill myself,'' said Qiu. ``Finally, I decided to forget about what other people thought of me and be myself. I had learned how to live.''
Qiu quit her job, turned her academic talents to the study of law, criminology, and psychology, and eventually became a reporter specializing in women's issues on the official China Legal News. In 1987, an editor at China Women's News invited Qiu to write an advice column.
``I discovered that a lot of Chinese women were just like me, vexed and in agony because of how others saw them. What Chinese women lack most is self-confidence.''
Qiu says she strives to help Chinese find their own solutions to the conflicting obligations and complex moral dilemmas they face. ``Everyone has his own standards in life, and he must decide for himself what he can do within those limits.''
Currently on her first visit to the United States, Qiu is writing a special column for Chinese on American society.
``When I first came to Los Angeles, I was walking down the street and someone smiled at me. I was so surprised, I looked behind me but no one was there,'' said Qiu, who couldn't believe a stranger's smile was meant for her. ``I feel comfortable on the streets here, it's as though everyone likes me.''