THERE HAVE BEEN other distractions, so we tend to forget that people actually live in that jagged heap of cement called Watergate, and one of the greatest dwellings there is the penthouse occupied by a mysteriously powerful woman named Anna Chennault. Born and reared in China, she is the widow of General Clarie L. Chennault, the cranky, outspoken leader of the Flying Tigers -- the men who flew over the Jump into China in the darkest days of World War II.

The snapshots at the centerfold stir vague memories of her activities here: Anna standing by JFK in the White House. Anna with President Nixon in the White House; with Gerald Ford and Mrs. Ford; Anna standing between J. Edgar Hoover and former CIA chief, Vice-Admiral William F. Raborn; Anna with General Westmoreland in Saigon; with General Nguyen Cao Ky; and with President Chiang Ching-kuo in Taipei. She looks lissome as a hazel wand as the years pass, aging with a grace that only the Orient seems to confer -- the face increasingly pale and smooth instead of coarse and mottled, subsiding into folds.

Why have these powerful men lined up to be photographed next to this frail flower from the East? The captions do not explain. But if we seek the clues in The Education of Anna, we learn that the meek are not summoned to stand before the lens -- and that a melting charm can conceal a spine of steel.

The book is dedicated to all her teachers, and especially to Thomas G. Corcoran, "Tommy the Cork," a wily and durable fixture of the political scene -- "the best teacher of them all." But if one expects this to be another primer on the art of getting ahead in Washington, one is pleasantly surprised. The first truth to dawn is that Anna Chennault can spin a mesmerizing tale; and much of the action takes place in a remote and exotic landscape -- about as far from Virginia Avenue as you can get. It is so remote and exotic, in fact, that it almost doesn't sound real. But I got so I didn't care.

She described herself as a product of that rarefied world of Chinese aristocrats who were born to immense wealth and culture, who traveled and studied abroad, and returned to China to a life of ancient ceremony and beauty, mingled with a separate awareness imported from the West. Her father studied law at Oxford and then Columbia. He edited an English-language paper and taught in Peking and eventually joined the diplomatic corps. Anna Chennault's mother was raised "in the hothouse glamour of mansions carpeted with tientsin rugs, draped with crystal chandeliers, and adorned with priceless knick-knacks of porcelain, jade, and ivory." She had attended schools in England, France and Italy; studied art, music and five languages, "and glowed with the refinements of privilege."

To fall on hard times in this world was a disgrace, and when her paternal grandfather's streetcar company failed, he leapt to his death from the balcony of his mansion in Canton, while his wife, dressed in ceremonial red (the concubines wore pink) "reached him, screaming, just in time to feel the tip of his silk mandarin gown slip through her delicate fingers."

To be born a girl was an almost equal calamity. Anna was her parents' second disappointment in that respect -- and not their last. "After me, there would be four more girls, the six of us constituting misfortune bordering on tragedy," she writes. They were named, Chinese fashion, after flowers, each with its own qualities. Anna, born in early summer, "when willow catkins dropped like snow and paper kites with bells and wind chimes turned into musical butterflies in the sky," was called Sheng Mai -- Plum Blossom -- "a winter flower that braves snow and storm and is a metaphor for purity, integrity, and beauty." How all this got telescoped down to Anna she does not explain.

In any case, this shimmering soap-bubble existence was shattered by World War II. Her father left the family in Hong Kong, where her mother died of cancer. Her first encounter with Chinese communism was in the person of her Grandaunt Liao -- "an eccentric old woman who lacked humanity while preaching it," and whose face "registered both a moral and physical objection to smiling." Subsequent events have only toughened her stance on that score.

As the Japanse overran Hong Kong the six girls fled to Macao and the Chinese mainland with their mother's jewels sewn into the linings of their coats. They joined the streams of refugees heading inland by train, truck, sedan chair and on foot. Yet life somehow went on in the turmoil, and Anna finished college -- although the campus kept constantly shifting to avoid the bombs. At 19 she became the first woman war correspondent for China's Central News Agency. Sent to cover U.S. forces stationed in Kunming, she met General Chennault, who was their boss. He was a foreigner, 31 years older than she, married and the father of eight children, so their old-world romance took the form of silent glances across the teacups. Only later, when he returned to China a free man did he tell her that he loved her, and after that she took two years to make up her mind. Her family disappoved, and she had a more suitable suitor in Dick Ng, president of the Central Trust Bank. But Dick "could never understand why I should be hurt when he sent his chauffeur to take me for a drive in the country on weekends instead of coming himself." So the general won. And they lived happily until he died in 1958.

Her Washington "schooling" came after that, and she has majored in politics, Washington-sytle, where a skillful dinner party is a base of power. She gives telling vignettes of Nixon, Kissinger, John Mitchell, Tongsun Park and others who supped at her table. An ardent Republican (they were "the first to ask me"), she became a fund raiser, strategist and backstage courier between the Nixon administration and the government of Vietnam. But she was disllusioned by the peace negotiations there and devotes her last chapter to the dangers of dealing with Communist China. All this has cost her some subtle perks -- like access to the White House box at the Opera House. But you get the feeling she'll be back. And meanwhile she's written an intriguing book -- startlingly skillful in the light of her bashful claims that she has difficulty speaking English.