A BIC (Born in China) China hand, who has just after 41 years revisited his Nanking home, his father's lab, gas plant and graduate students (now elderly faculty members) knows again how appealing it is to be among the Chinese and how difficult to see beyond surface impressions. Everywhere the Chinese were the same warm, curious, courteous people they had been when I was a boy. They welcomed street conversations, were amused by cravings for shao bing (hot biscuits sold at stalls) and by recollections of Nanking streets not yet blessed with shade trees. Their attitude was ever that of host dealing with transient foreign guest.

My brief return makes today's traffic in China books especially attractive. The five under review are substantive contributions to understanding contemporary China.

Indexed from acupunture to zinc, The Encyclopedia of China Today is what it claims to be, a collection of unadorned information -- post 1949. This modest volume gains luster with an introduction by John Stewart Service who says of it, "There is no substitute for plain unvarnished facts." Service also reviews the course of our reporting on China from 1937 to the present. Since the Nixon visit in 1972 the flow of information has increased, but the fuller reporting, Service adds, "seems to have inspired its own small backlash, part reaction to knee-jerk enthusiasm and part hankering for a falsely idyllic past and for a Western concept of individualism that China's long history never generated."

Journalists David Bonavia (The Chinese) and John Fraser (The Chinese: Portrait of a People) write from their experience as bureau chiefs in Peking -- Bonavia for the London Times, Fraser for the Toronto Globe and Mail. Both served in China during the dramatic communications breakthrough following the ouster of the Gang of Four. Faser opted to return home in 1979 at the end of a two-year tour when he felt that prospects for open communications were again fading. Bonavia, whose China tour began in 1972, stays on.

Fraser tells his tale with strong feeling, wit, and mounting suspense. A drama-dance critic prior to his China posting, he steeped himself in China studies ("two old potboilers," he says, "Edgar Snow's Red Star Over China and Pearl Buck's The Good Earth," served him better than all the rest). In Peking, irritated by privileges designed to keep the foreigner at bay and by endless official digressions on the Gang of Four, he vigorously courted potential friends. His Chinese sources, aloof at first as the times required, became in the Deng Xiaoping period more direct and outspoken.

The high point of Fraser's Peking stay came in November 1978 when by accident he became a speaker in Tienanmen Square. Drawn out of a crowd around the wall posters he answered questions (through a self-appointed interpreter) and found himself relaying information from Deng, via visiting columnist Robert Novak, to the "Chinese masses." The low point came a few days later when "bad elements" drove him and his wife out of the Square to seek refuge in the cable office. Six months later Fraser learned that the bad elements on that occasion had been the Peking Public Speaking Bureau -- the police.

Fraser's strong feelings derive from his empathy with the ordinary people and the activists he had come to know (not dissidents, he insists) and his distaste for China's authoritarian leadership. "I was asked by people in China I admire enormously to write about their hopes and aspirations, their frustrations and bitterness, their pride and their shame," says Fraser. "I interpret this request as a plea to depict the Chinese as I come to see them in their presiding humanity." He has done so -- and well.

Bonavia, acquainted with communism from two years in Saigon, three in Moscow, eight in Peking, writes with the voice of a scholar. Yet he is clearly on the scene, not in a university library -- a lively, low-key, sharp, sensitive, highly intelligent observer. His approach, as seen on the contents page, is topical: "The Returning Tide" (youth returning, unwelcome, unexpected, from rural work to the cities' streets), "The Enemy in the Womb" (the monster problem of population growth), "Drugs and Dragon's Bones" (the author's score: one small point against acupunture, one for herbal medicine), "Laws, Lawmakers, and Lawbreakers." Readers here are made aware of the vast centuries of Chinese cultural superiority and the past century and a half of humiliation by foreign powers, which are present in the make-up of contemporary China. Were I compelled to select a single book from among the five under review, I would choose Bonavia's.

I am of two minds about Eve Arnold's In China. I am caught by the artistry of the photographs, the excellence of reproduction and of book design, with one large picture per page. Her people and landscapes are achingly beautiful. Yet, the China hand in me is put off by the artificiality. Many of the pictures seem more poster material than reality. A female "military doctor" carrying a rifle with fixed bayonet? "Barefoot doctor in Tibet" examining a child in the open plains away from home or tent? It tends to look stagey and static. In the text on her five-month adventure, Arnold, an American, explains that spontaneity suffered from the need to ask permission to take the portraits.

I almost prefer the look of China as done by Chinese writers and photographers. This coffee-table book with 250 color prints is twice as expensive and flawed by occasionally poor reproduction. Dr. Sun's white and blue-tiled manusoleum appears in brown and purple. Suzhou's main canal at night is blacker than anyone intended. Even so, this book seems more the China I think I know -- lively, vibrant. Coverage is by region; the text is history-description, forgivably slanted and self-serving. A two-page chronology begins with 500,000 B.C. (Peking Man) and ends at 1976 with the deaths of Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai.