AS A JOURNALIST in Hong Kong several years ago, Robert Elegant struggled to see truths of ancient China in the strange maneuvers of the Chinese Communists. His news stories sometimes told more about China of the last century than of the present, but his obsession with the past eventually produced the best-selling novel, Dynasty, and inspired this new and similarly history-laden saga.

Elegant does not make it easy on himself. Many writers despair of putting even current Chinese events and personalities in a context that Western readers might appreciate and enjoy. Grappling with this problem in an earlier, non-fiction book on Mao Tse-tung's cultural revolution, Elegant struck on the clever device of giving nicknames to all the principal Chinese personalities. Mao's former actress wife Jiang Qing became "The Starlet," his fawning defense minister Lin Biao became "The Disciple." It seemed a useful way of overcoming a Western difficulty in pronouncing and remembering all those Chinese names. But here Elegant has undertaken to illuminate a China three-and-a-half centuries in the past, where few of his readers can be expected to find any familiar landmarks.

Elegant's topic, the fall of the Ming Dynasty to the Manchu invasion in the early 17th century, is without question one of the most dramatic chapters of Chinese history. It offers great, steaming scenes of bloodshed, sex and betrayal usually enjoyed up to now only by scholars in dusty libraries. To further interest Western readers who prefer their thrillers closer to home, Elegant creates a sympathetic Western character, a young Roman Catholic armaments expert of English and French parentage who enters China in 1628 in search of wealth and God's grace. The young man, Francis Arrowsmith, plus a few Jesuit priests and some European soldiers of fortune, plunge into the jungle of 17th-century Chinese politics. Arrowsmith falls into the embraces of three imposing women: a Chinese Christian of good family but with rapacious instincts, a good-hearted Manchu noblewoman and a brilliant daughter of the Portuguese aristocracy in Macao. Arrowsmith is a heroic bumbler, a fitting symbol of the West's first brushes with China.His dreams of turning the tide of Chinese history with Western cannon and the words of Christ never quite come off. Elegant is true to history by never letting his hero be any more than a footnote to the great events swirling around him.

Instead, as in Dynasty, Elegant enlivens this rather minor tale by putting Arrowsmith in contact with as many of the giants of the era as he can. Arrowsmith is tutored by the great Ming Dynasty Christian official, Paul Hsu. He becomes the prisoner and adviser to the Manchu prince Dorgon who eventually conquers the Ming. Arrowsmith briefly encounters Li Tzu-cheng, the Mao Tse-tung of his day, and instructs young Koxinga, the last brave Ming warrior who later drives the Portuguese out of Taiwan (one of the few events of the era Elegant fails to squeeze in).

A resourceful television producer may see the glimmer of a Chinese Shogun here. Again, a stalwart, somewhat naive Englishman loses himself in Oriental intrigue. Action scenes work well. The newly arrived Arrowsmith gasps in horror as Ming soldiers use axes to clear helpless refugees off a roadway. An older, though not much wiser Arrowsmith leads an almost comic assault by a few hundred Western-armed troops to save Canton from 50,000 invading Manchus. But Elegant buries much of the action in detail: the intricacies of Peking cuisine, the nuances of Confucian thought, the exotic flavor of spoken Chinese reproduced in short italicized phrases throughout the book. The dialogue and character sometimes sink out of of sight.

Elegant was known, in his years as the Los Angeles Times' Hong Kong correspondent, for his superb command of Chinese language and culture. In an author's note to this book, he informs us that "both original and scholarly sources in English, Latin, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, and Portuguese were consulted." Elegant's journalist colleagues in Hong Kong found his omniscient manner amusing or instructive depending on their point of view, and Manchu will probably strike readers in the same various ways. But those who liked Dynasty should find much to enjoy here.