IN AN EAST EUROPEAN country, in the late 1950s, a securely-established member of that country's academy of sciences was talking about cybernetics (and the reader may well know more about what cybernetics is than this reviewer does). "You know," he said, "Stalin took a violent dislike to cybernetics, and consequently nothing could be published about that subject inthe Soviet Union, nor could people admit that they discussed it in private. Yet within a year of Stalin's death -- far too short a time for doing the necessary research and writing -- two excellent Russian books on cybernetics were published." The speaker did not heavily cross his t's or dot his i's, but his meaning was clear: If authority is well-organized and powerful, it can repress public discussion, but it cannot prevent thinking and private exchanges of opinion. To this one should add a point usually overlooked when discussing "totalitarian thought control": In all countries in which education is guided by Marxist precepts (regardless of quarrels among different schools of Marxism), there is a heavier emphasis on the teaching of mathematics and basic science from a very early age than there is in the Anglo-Saxon world. This kind of mental conditioning involves analysis, the setting up of working hypotheses and the testing of theory against the evidence, inevitably creating a tension between political dogma and facing the facts.

Of course, a revolution is not a single great upheaval that creates a new landscape with fixed features. It is more like a tidal system of ebb and flow. After a relaxation there is almost inevitably a swing back, a reassertion of authority and censorship. We have already heard, for example, of the crackdown on criticism expressed in wall-posters in Peking. Such complexities can be hunted down all through this volume of nearly 1,000 pages. Editorially, the material is presented in a chronological sequence of the phases of political control over literary publication. Each author cited is given brief biographical note. There is a wide range of sadness in these notes, from the obscure to the grim. Thus in the first flush of revolutionary victory, Shih Fang-yu published in 1950 a poem which "captured the hearts of nearly the entire population of China," but after that, "Nothing has come forth from him since 1963." As for Lao She, at the time of his death in 1966 "he was holding the influential and prestigious post of chairman of the Peking Federation of Literary and Art Circles." In 1978 the government acknowledged that he had died "from the persecution of the Red Guards . . . but it is still unclear whether his death was a suicide or a murder."

In considering the literature of a revolutionary period one must always bear in mind the historical heritage and the cultural setting. The old China had been a country of mass illiteracy, governed by a small elite educated under very strict rules. It was inevitable, as the Chinese Revolution developed, that some of the sons and daughters of the this old Confucian elite should tend to transform themselves into a new Party elite, arrogating to themselves the authority to interpret Marxist doctrine. At the same time it was equally inevitable that in a party claiming to be the vanguard of the masses there should emerge a demand for doing away with the old, stilted literary forms and adopting the language of the people, both for teaching the people and -- a favorite revolutionary slogan -- "learning from the people."

In this context it is important that in China the language of the common people has always been rich, variegated and vividly expressive. Although the vast majority had always been uneducated, it had never, in a deeper cultural sense, been ignorant. Legend and folklore flourished. Above all, no culture in the world was ever more historically-minded. In some desolate village where nobody could read, a passing traveler would not be surprised to have pointed out to him where a famous poet had been born, or a famous battle fought. Out of the ordinary speech of such people new and amazingly vigorous ways of writing shorts stories, novels, poems and plays could be rapidly developed.

The great value of this volume is that it gives us as nearly as possible the full range of rapidly changing China, from didactic pedantry to vernacular vividness, from attempts to inculcate regimented conformity to outbreaks of irrepressible individuality. Much of the translation is by Chinese who handle English with skill and subtlety, but it is encouraging to an old-timer like this reviewer, to find that so much of the work has been done, and done well, by Americans, Englishmen, at least a couple of Australians and a Belgian. With such a talented younger generation coming up, we are not in danger of being intellectually isolated from China. The important thing is to keep in touch with and understand the sometimes abrupt changes of intellectual fashion in China, without being captured by them.