LIKE the Woodstock generation in America, China's youths grew up during the '60s in a crazy age of political and cultural experimentation. It was called the Cultural Revolution.But unlike their American counterparts, they didn't settle into comfortable middle age - with a Volvo in the driveway and a VCR in the den. Instead, they woke up in the '70s to discover they had little education, scant job prospects, and were spending their days bent over rice fields in remote peasant villages. Determined to shake up an increasingly fat-cat Communist Party bureaucracy, in 1966 Mao Zedong encouraged students to take to the countryside, chuck out party stalwarts, and - in an orgy of revolution - stir the people to work harder. The revolution petered out into petty infighting, empty sloganeering, and random violence. Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, and her cohorts in the Gang of Four helped turn the affair into a blood bath and were overthrown shortly after Mao's death. When he died in 1976, so did his re volution. Now, after years of silence, China's " '60s hippies" have begun to loose the robes of silence that cloaked them, taking advantage of a milder climate under Deng Xiaoping. "Voices from the Whirlwind," by Chinese author Feng Jicai, is a collection of 14 oral histories from those who fought in the trenches: students, housewives, factory managers. It is not a smuggled samizdat work; Feng is a noted writer and member of several official Chinese artists associations, and the book originally was published by the Foreign Languages Press in Bejing - which shows how "politically correct" it is in China these days to criticize those who engineered the Cultural Revolution. My blood ran cold when I read the opening lines to the terrifying second story "Was I Really Guilty?I killed my father with my own hands," says an unnamed doctor who, in 1966, was 30 years old. Her father was labeled a capitalist for renting out a room in their house. Locked in a room and beaten for two days by members of the Red Guard - Mao's dreaded shock troops - out of desperation "the three of us made up our minds to die together," she says. She killed her father with a knife, then jumped from a bal cony with her mother, who was also killed. But the daughter survived to spend a long time in jail. Years later, she is torn by what she did. "I saved my father from more torture, but they said I was guilty because I prevented them from torturing him more. Am I making myself clear?" she asks. Such dilemmas wind through the collection like a snake through grass. The "voices" in this book aren't sure who to blame. Their crimes often turned on an absurd twist of fate - like the teacher who is jailed because he is accused of making up a story about Mao jumping in a ditch to avoid a tank. His wife spends eight years collecting every scrap of paper she can find, searching for the original story as evidence to garner his release. Similar internal struggle confronts a 20-year-old student in "A Senior Red Guard's Apologia." Students from peasant families with revolutionary zeal spearheaded Mao's movement. In this account, one young student jumped from social outcast for criticizing a member of the Communist Party to Red Guard leader after he gave an inspiring speech. (A friend of his who was accused of listening to Tchaikovsky, a "decadent" Western composer, didn't fare as well.) The Red Guard leader traveled freely around the country, ate stewed pork and apples with comrades in a Beijing park, listened to Jiang Qing speak, and caught a glimpse of Chairman Mao. It was fun. Then the infighting began. He beat a girl accused of being a spy and wandered through an army depot choosing weapons. "Once the real violence got under way, we didn't dare close our eyes or even undress at night. One whistle blow and we'd be instantly on our feet," he says. To win the endless political arguments, he trained a comrade to quote from Mao and Lenin at will, and nicknamed him the "Marxism-Leninism Ammunition Depot." In a policy shift, his world came crashing down, and he became an outcast. "When I talk about the Cultural Revolution, I don't feel any remorse," he says. However, "my degree is only so much paper. This country has trained me, but who am I?" Who, indeed? Like others of his generation, he was called to arms, and then abandoned when the war turned sour. "In a war, when the commander makes mistakes, the common soldiers are still martyrs. Aren't they?" he asks. Yet despite the rough times, these "voices" retain a surprising respect for Mao and what he did for the country. Through the haze of pain, many of the students interviewed, who were scattered like marbles across China, believe they did achieve one of Mao's original goals: forcing intellectuals to learn about the hard life of the peasant. One student proudly states, "A lot of the Great Northern Wilderness was cultivated by us. Yes, and I'm proud of it." In the end, though, they acknowledge that Mao may have been a visionary, but his vision was clouded. "Voices From the Whirlwind" does a good job of digging through the muck of the Cultural Revolution and unearthing its complexities. Unfortunately, the author never explains how the unnamed subjects were selected. And when asked, the publishers called it "edited reportage a phrase broad enough to cover everything from verbatim transcriptions to complete fabrication. But that may be why the best of these stories cross the line from oral history to literature and read with the sharp edge of a Russian short story.