CHINESE AWAKENINGS: LIFE STORIES FROM THE UNOFFICIAL CHINA By James and Ann Tyson, Westview Press, 327 pp., $59.95 (cloth) $19.95 (paper) CHINA POP By Jianying Zha The New Press, 210 pp., $20 Grasping the enormity - and speed - of China's changes over the last two decades is literally mind-boggling. In two decades, China has gone from a ''sea of blue ants'' to the glittering skylines of new office buildings. Even the Chinese who have lived through the changes find them difficult to comprehend, while those who have come of age during the reforms sometimes lack an understanding of where their society has come from. These books by James and Ann Tyson and by Jianying Zha take the pulse of China in the early 1990s. While there is some overlapping of the pictures of China they present, they come at their subject from remarkably different perspectives and end up offering rather different portraits of China. These are certainly authors worth listening to. The Tysons spent five years in China, from 1987 to 1992, reporting for The Christian Science Monitor, while Jianying Zha is a product of the society she reports on, though one who considers Chicago to be as much home as Beijing. In some ways the Tysons' book is the more ambitious. They try to present the diversity of China and gauge the trajectory of the country's evolution through in-depth looks at the lives of nine people in very different walks of life. The chapter on dissident journalist Zhang Weiguo, who served in the late 1980s as Beijing bureau chief of the outspoken Shanghai newspaper World Economic Herald, is compelling reading. Jailed following the 1989 crackdown, a defiant Zhang emerged a year and a half later to become China's first free-lance journalist. Also thrust into international renown by the events of 1989 was labor activist Han Dongfang, whose efforts to promote an independent labor union in a ''workers' state'' resulted in nearly two years of imprisonment and torture. The stories of Zhang and Han will rightfully capture the attention of the many readers who remember the events of 1989 vividly. The Tysons, however, are also interested in going beyond the well-known activists to present the lives of the millions of Chinese whose day-to-day activities are changing the face of China and confronting the government with new demands. From the clan leader in Guangdong province, to the Tibetan nomad in the highlands of Gansu province, to the entrepreneurial activities of a private millionaire, the Tysons depict a population that is, as they put it, ''awakening'' and ''listening to their inner voices.'' These people, they say, are creating an ''independent society'' that is ''eclipsing the state as the most powerful force for change in China'' and bringing about the ''dawning of freedom.'' Reform has indeed weakened the authority of the central state and provided room for activists such as Zhang and Han, but the vision of a newly arisen ''civil society'' inexorably bringing about democracy is a journalist's pipedream. Contrary to the Tysons' view, China's economic performance in recent years has been led by local governments, not individuals. The power of the central state is certainly declining, but the beneficiary has been the local state. China's intellectuals may be more independent-minded, but there is no civil society in China. In contrast to the Tysons' effort to show how the changes in Chinese society are inevitably leading to democratic change, Jianying Zha's book is more limited in scope but more perceptive of the changes taking place in China. Zha focuses on China's cultural sphere, a world she knows well. Eschewing grand generalizations, Ms. Zha seeks to capture a ''more complex, more ambiguous picture'' of a China that is ''ridden with contradictions, ambiguities, and impossible dilemmas.'' What ''China Pop'' chronicles so brilliantly is the commercialization of China's cultural world and the anxiety that change is causing in China's intellectuals. The economic changes of which the Tysons and Zha speak have indeed created new channels for the cultural elite to pursue livelihoods and have thereby lessened their dependence on the state. But the same process has opened up painful questions about intellectual standards and to some extent marginalized China's intelligentsia. China's intellectuals have always seen themselves as an elite standing far above the rest of society, and Mao Zedong's persecution of them was cruel confirmation of their status as society's conscience. The road to popular writing and commercial success has been led by Wang Shuo, the master of the hooligan novel, whose writing is as cynical as it is entertaining. Wang has also led the way into television, working on the hugely popular series ''Yearnings,'' a soap opera chronicling the lives and loves of two Beijing families. This route to commercial success has been followed by other serious artists. Commercial success has brought consternation as China's literati debate the standards that should be used to judge ''serious'' literature and art as opposed to mere commercialism. Elitism remains strong. Although a product of this elite culture, Zha obviously sees virtue in not all art being so deadly serious as some would like it to be. Indeed, the relative intellectual freedom found in the commercialization of literature and art may not produce Western-style democracy. But if it can begin to depoliticize literature and art, it will contribute to a separation of state and society that can only be healthy for both.