BACK in 1972, New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury spent six weeks in the People's Republic of China. From his first real exposure to a nation in tumult came his book "To Peking and Beyond: A Report on the New Asia." It staked out Salisbury's claim as a leading sinologist, with special emphasis on politics and leadership rather than culture and language.
A new book every two or three years has reinforced these credentials. In 1984, he retraced the trail of the Red Army in retreat during its legendary Long March of 50 years before and published an account of his adventures. In 1989, he was an observer at the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. Later the same year, his "Tiananmen Diary" came out, recording what he saw of the student revolt and its brutal suppression.
The latest Salisbury book, "The New Emperors: China in the Era of Mao and Deng," is the biography of the two men who have ruled China since 1949: Mao Zedong and his diminutive lieutenant and successor, Deng Xiaoping. In its vast sweep, and with its special sense of intimacy stemming from the author's contacts with the huge cast of characters (which in less gifted hands could have been bewildering), this is a blockbuster of a book.
He explains the title by placing Mao and Deng in a long continuum going back to the Yellow Emperor, founder of the Chinese civilization almost 6,000 years ago. They are to Salisbury the lineal flashbacks to the Tang Dynasty and the other five dynasties that ruled until early in the present century.
"The concept of emperor," he instructs us, is intimately associated with that of the dragon. "China's dragons, guardians of the throne, are unlike those of the West. They are benign and protective but can turn like terrible emperors on the people. If they do so, it is the fault of the people, not the dragons. They breathe fire and thrash their tail only if betrayed, a convenient concept for an emperor."
Since the throne was no longer inherited at the time of Mao's rise to power, the succession became a free-for-all among the various warlords. During the final phase of the savage conflict with Chiang Kaishek, ending in the generalissimo's total defeat, Mao had kept a low profile. But this was an illusion, for his armies were everywhere. It was Mao who devised the strategy of feint and deceit that drove Chiang from mainland China.
The Salisbury passage on this subject is trenchant: "Nothing was more dangerous than to take Mao at face value. If he retreated, it was to lure his enemy into a trap. If he smiled, beware, as friend and foe learned to their cost. No man lived in greater peril than one whom Mao designated his heir apparent."
Two of Mao's comrades who had shared the dangers of the Long March were Deng and Zhou Enlai (Chou Enlai to most Westerners). Deng, the buoyant "Sunshine Boy" with a gift for survival, bore the heaviest burdens: trying to boost China's sagging economy and to reduce the birthrate. Zhou, subtle and charming, was the henchman who led in the opening of China to the West, culminating in the epochal 1972 visit of President Nixon.
In his bedridden last years, Mao did his best to destroy them both. Zhou died in 1976. With the death of Mao later the same year, Deng achieved the chairmanship, helped to power by a military clique. Now, in Deng's waning years (he is nearly 88), China is in a holding pattern, with the population out of control again, the economy still in shreds, and no initiatives in sight. The succession is again shrouded in doubt.
Salisbury tells this tumultuous story from the inside. Not since Marco Polo in the 13th century has a foreigner penetrated as far into the inner mysteries. He achieved access to the enclave known as Zhongnanhai, southwest of the Forbidden City.
There he found "a hidden fairyland of lakes and parks and palaces ... where Kublai Khan built his pleasure domes; where emperors and empresses, concubines and eunuchs, took their leisure within walls more forbidding than those of the Forbidden City itself.... Here are three imperial lakes, a diadem of crystal waters a mile long, fed by the Jade Fountain, a spring in the Fragrant Hills..."
Both Mao and Deng made the Sea Palaces there a "new utopia." The symbolism of Zhongnanhai runs through the whole book, and the conviction grows that Salisbury, like Marco Polo once, is a mandarin at heart.
His reportorial skills shine more soberly on the whole question of the relationship of Red China and the Soviet Union. It is another recurrent theme. To it Salisbury brings a double vision, honed by his five years as a correspondent in Moscow (1949-54), as well as his long years in China.
Early in his ascendancy, Mao traveled to Moscow for Stalin's 70th birthday. Stalin mostly ignored him and at best treated him like a colonial governor. Mao reluctantly signed a treaty that the world thought had created a monolithic state that ran from the Baltic to the China Sea.
In fact, Stalin, who preferred a China weak and fragmented, had supported Chiang right up to his escape to Taiwan. Moreover, he only encouraged Mao's intervention in the Korean War in hopes that this would further weaken him. In what Salisbury calls a "triple cross," Stalin promised air support to the Chinese forces in North Vietnam, and then failed to deliver on his promise.
Had the United States but known! At the heart of the domino theory lay the mistaken belief that too great an allied effort in Southeast Asia would trigger the combined wrath of the two powers believed to act as one. So history as it unfolds in "The New Emperors" casts long shadows.
Who lost China was one of the searching questions of the 1950s. Salisbury's answer is that it was not America's to lose and that Stalin did, by his failure to convert the China of Mao and Deng into a viable ally.
Where will China go from here? When will true democracy come? "The change would not take long," the last line of this enthralling book tells us, "possibly less than a hundred years."