ANYONE PLANNING a first visit to China should read Charlotte Salisbury - not only the book reviewed here but, for deeper focus and a sense of changing times, at least her first China Diary, published before the death of Chairman Mao. She rates at the top among recent travel writers: her English is cool and straightforward, without political jargon.As an observer she sees more than is pointed out to her by escorts and interpreters; she likes and get on with people, but she is no pushover for propaganda and is capable of the occasional tart comment. Sitting in at one interview, she notes: "The head man is very nice looking, but it seems to me he is giving [Harrison Salisbury, her husband] a lot of political crap."

After the plain, wholesome fare offered us by Salisbury we have put before us, in The China Difference, a large platter of scrambled eggheads. It has an excellent introduction by the editor, Ross Terrill, who also provides a thumbnail sketch of each contributor. We are told that the 15 contributors have, between them, visited China some 25 times during the 1970s. We are also told, on the jacket of the book, that all of them "know the Chinese language," but what does that mean?& In this case, a lot. Orville Schnell worked in a Shanghai factory and on a commune. Erica Jen, born of Chinese parents in Washington, worked for a year and a half in a Chinese university, a factory and a commune. Victor Li was born in China (though he came to America as a child). Roxane Witke, judging from her book on Chiang Ch'ing (Madame Mao), talked with her sometimes intimately and alone in Chinese, as well as in long sessions with interpreters. Harriet Mills was born in Japan, grew up in China, and spent four years in a Chinese prison. Michael Sullivan spent five years in wartime China. From the way they write, it is plain that for such people "knowing Chinese" is a part of their being.

They make up almost half of the contributors. Most of the others have an academic flavor. John Fairbank, who contributes "Self-Expression in China," is in a class by himself. He first went to China in 1932, and he has collaborated in Publications with several distinguished Chinese scholars. He has also been America's most productive teacher in Chinese studies: American universities are dotted with professors who are "Fairbank products." These disciples and other late-comers, through no fault of their own, began their studies academically, not living within the matrix of the Chinese culture - and from this standpoint, time spent studying China in Hong Kong or Taiwan is time spent on the periphery. Expatriates and refugees are part of this periphery, and their information should be handled, if not with skepticism, at least with caution. The "social scientist" is often more naive than the informant, and fails to catch on to the fact that the newly arrived refugee is under pressure to ingratiate himself. The moment the information that he thinks is wanted. There is only one way to get reliable information out of refugees: never ask a question, but sit around and listen to newly arrived refugees talking to refugees who preceded them.

Inevitably, the lately hatched, bookish American of the post-Ping-Pong generation is pushed toward theorizing when he starts to compare what he sees in the People's Republic with what he has read and been taught. America did more intellectual damage to itself than to China when it severed relations and spent 30 years pretending that the Chinese were first this and then that - stooges of the Russians, imperialistic domino-topplers, and now "pragmatists" (a concept open to confusingly different interpretations). This becomes clearly evident when comparing the schoolboy innocence still prevailing in America with the understanding of China that the Europeans have been patiently building up all during this time. There are controversies in the European interpretations, of course, but they tend to be about realities, not the theories that fascinate Americans.

Those who planned and contributed to this book are lucky to have had Ross Terrill as editor. An Australian by origin (though he is now American), he was able to visit China before Ping-Pong, Nixon, the ineffable Kissinger and now the half-geopolitical, half-never-never land of "normalization." (Was there ever anything more abnormal? A weird combination of what had to be done, and the most bumbling possible way of doing it.)

Terrill illustrates the importance of the difference between before and after table tennis through the Australian ring of realism in his own comments and the orderly American expertise with which he marshals and parades his contributors. CAPTION: Illustration, "Refugees, Rich and Poor," a woodcut by Li Hua (1939) reprinted in "The China Difference"