SCHOLARS WHO DABBLE in modern Chinese literature sometimes wonder why so little of it is any good. Where are the Pasternaks, the Solzhenitsyns, who have made their mark in the other major revolutionary society? This marvelous book suggests one answer: Chinese writers may be so obsessed with China, so wrapped up in the question of how it can return to its former greatness, that they have no time for subtler thought.

Yet what a magnificent preoccupation China can be, as Jonathan Spence makes clear in The Gate of Heavenly Peace. Perhaps the book's only flaw is its forbidding title, which threatens the reader with a textbook when what we have here is a string of biographical vignettes. Spence is George Burton Adams professor of history at Yale and for years has been the savior of students faced with long reading lists in Asian studies, overburdened postgraduates often saving him for dessert because he writes so well for a college professor rummaging in very archaic texts.

In spite of his title, Spence does not attempt a detailed description of the history of the Chinese revolution from the collapse of the Qing dynasty through the death of Mao. He covers that period, but his occasional narratives on social, political and economic history provide only background. Instead, he brings alive the men and women who made the revolution, uncovering their bedtime fantasies, personality conflicts, sexual weaknesses and irrational rages.

No one has quite done Chinese history like this before. Western readers usually pass the subject by anyway, put off by the strange customs and philosophic assumptions and also, I think, by the nearly unpronouncable names. How difficult it is to summon up an interest in people named Kang Youwei, Lu Xun and Ding Ling --to take Spence's three main characters.

If this book cannot lead readers across that barrier, no book can. Who would not want to hear more about onetime Communist Party chief Qu Qiubai, after learning the ending of his last testament before execution: "The Chinese bean curd is the most delicious food in the whole world. Goodbye and farewell!" Spence rescues the novelist Lao She by illuminating the sarcasm Lao slipped into an essay written during the Mao era. Told to comment on the lyrics of this song, "The East is Red, the Sun is Rising, in China a Mao Zedong has appeared," Lao extols its "disciplined economy," adding "yet how great is the spirit, how great is the range of that sentence, how deep is its feeling, how sonorous its rhythms!" It took some years before the Maoists figured this out and killed Lao.

Spence begins with the story of Kang Youwei, a bright and ambitious young man from Canton so floored by his first visit to Hong Kong--"the elegance of the buildings of the foreigners, the cleanliness of the streets, the efficiency of their police"--that he determines to get the best of the West for China. Through incredible persistence and luck, he wins an audience with the young emperor and then becomes a palace nag, assuming everyone sees as clearly as he does the need for western schools and western arms. Gradually we meet the younger, more radical men and women who know Kang but follow different paths to the revolution. Lu Xun, the acerbic master of short stories and political essays, takes us through the worst turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s. Ding Ling, a Hunanese who is probably the greatest Chinese female writer of the century, is both seduced and abandoned by the Maoist revolution. Ding still lives in Peking. She plays the part of grande dame in Peking and does what she can to loosen the bonds of 30 years of literary oppression, but she has not much fight left.

From Kang Youwei to the young democracy movement writers of the late 1970s run unbroken strings of authoritarian thought and ancient history which Spence entwines in intriguing ways. He finds the editors of the "April Fifth Forum" in 1979 chastising the Communist Party for suppressing news of a dissident's trial, just as the Qing dynasty did with the trial of the revolutionary Zou Rong in 1903. A judge calls the 1979 dissident Fu Yuehua "morally degenerate" after she accuses her employer of rape, a direct echo of a Ding Ling story about a raped village girl 37 years before.

Chinese talk about guanxi, the relationships which bind people together and create mutual favors and obligations. The connections revealed in an hour's conversation with a Chinese may be overwhelming, taking a listener from the lowest peasant hovels of Guizhou to the foot of the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the great Peking archway that protected the emperor and supported Mao's reviewing stand. Spence's triumph is that he has illuminated the vital connections of friendship and family which have made Chinese history in this century, making them shine like a spider's web flecked with dew.