ELEVEN YEARS have gone by since the Nixon-Kissinger opening of 1972, and the People's Republic of China has become considerably less inscrutable for having been scrutinized by so many Westerners inclined to write about the experience. By now the terrain is pretty familiar: the overwhelming hospitality, the visits to orthopedic hospitals, the crowds of enchanting schoolchildren, the obligatory photos on the Wall, the pro forma denunciations of Lin Piao, Confucius, or the Gang of Four (Confucius has been rehabilitated), the endless cups of green tea, the poetry and plays based on the construction of hydro- electric dams. Travel books on China must surely be competing for an ever-shrinking market; on the other hand, the more who go there, the larger the audience becomes. And of course as soon as we think we've finally got a fix on the place, along comes a study full of fresh penetrations, such as last year's China: Alive in the Bitter Sea, by Fox Butterfield.

China Diary is faithful to its title: an alternately chatty and polished record of a trip to a still-strange land--two-thirds of which remains closed to foreigners. Stephen Spender--poet and critic--and David Hockney--artist and photographer--belong to a rich tradition described in Paul Fussell's Abroad, the British literary traveler. Why do the British seem better at this sort of thing than we? In part because it's fun to watch them coping. Told by someone in Hangchow that their visit is a sign of friendship "between our two countries," Spender's reaction has a nicely British huffiness: "I don't like being thought of as a nation."

British literary travelers also have a knack for coming up with the just-so conceit. Spender tells us for instance that Robert "Browning, with his aromatic stuffiness--his poems seem to me to smell of the inside of cedarwood cigar- boxes--serves as a useful introduction to ex-colonial Shanghai. . . ."

Some of the writing is wonderfully evocative. Deep in the bowels of a floodlit cave in Kweilin, he muses: "With its arches, traceries, weird columns, shapes resembling dragons, vegetables, giants, etc., it is one of nature's Arthur Rackham-like cathedrals, a nineteenth-century elf-land--but also a twentieth-century refuge from final war. One can well imagine our civilization ending with great crowds taking refuge in enormous underground vaults, in caves where petrified nature parodies in millenial stone the cathedral of the destroyed civilization."

In between those passages are some less exciting, if diary-like, stretches of prose.

Books on China have come a long way since 1972, which is to say the cheerleading of Ross Terrill's 800 Million: The Real China has given way to more sober, circumspect evaluations of what's been going on over there since 1949. Simon Ley's authoritative and disturbing Chinese Shadows belongs to the latter category.

Spender is neither over- nor undercritical of what he saw, and this results in a balanced view that will pique neither conservative nor liberal. (For that matter, coffee table books probably aren't supposed to pique.) There are no apologies here for a system that doesn't allow its citizens to travel between cities without a difficult-to-obtain permit; that effectively prohibits couples from having more than one child; that numbers Stalin in its official pantheon of great socialist leaders. (The only apology Spender makes, in fact, is a touching one, to a family in Kweilin, in the highly unlikely event they ever happen to read his description of their humbly finished apartment.) To anyone who has been to China and experienced (as I have) 100 or so hours of encomia of Marx-Engels-Lenin- Stalin-Mao Tse Tung thought, Spender's openminded but cautious tone comes as no small relief.

He and Hockney visited a China (in May, 1981) whose citizens are slowly but perceptibly demythologizing the once sacred Mao. While the country has put the Gang of Four behind bars and is proceeding apace with the Four Modernizations, the grim memories of the Cultural Revolution are very much alive. A young poet they encounter calls it "an icy yesterday," when over 30,000 people died at the hands of frenzied mobs of students. They meet another young poet "who read Shelley's 'Ode to the West Wind' (banned during the Cultural Revolution for not being the East Wind--in fact suspected of being the ode to the CIA wind)."

The influence of that tumultuous, excruciating epoch is ever-present. But even though everyone they talk to denounces the Cultural Revolution, its former victims are still wary of arousing the feeling that was at the root of it and which stirred so many to such violent, vengeful passions--envy. "The now elderly heads of government," writes Spender, "in order not to excite envy, I suppose, look like undertakers trudging to their own graves, or being driven towards them in limousines like hearses."

Spender observes that "the Cultural Revolution was the most ferocious expression of the view that the high must be made low and the low made high: teachers must scrub floors and take lessons from the pupils. Envy is no longer of the poor for the rich, but of the stupid for the clever."

Along the way he reports some interesting data. For instance: despite the strictly puritanical outlook on sexual mores, there is a thriving black market in pornography. And--brace yourself--the works of Freud are now being translated. What will China's next revolution be called? Is the world ready for the unleashing of 1.2 billion ids?

Spender also includes an interesting analysis of an earlier period of upheaval, when "a hundred flowers" bloomed briefly in the late '50s. Theeterm refers to a short-lived period of liberalization, followed by a ruthless suppression of those who dared to bloom.

"Letting things out and then pulling them in seems to have been a pattern of behavior with Mao. The hundred flowers would surely be far better named 'the hundred mice.' Again and again the mice are allowed by the State to play awhile and then when they go too far a large paw stretches out and pulls them back into the cat's jaws. Constant repetition of this process may make one wonder whether the very freedom of the mice to play around a bit, during some period in which they are let out, is not evidence more of their enslavement than of their freedom."

But having so expressed himself on aspects of Chinese communism, Spender ends with a baffling rhetorical question: "Which do we prefer? The People's Republic of China or Hong Kong?" This will strike some readers a cop-out, or at least as a bit of polemical legerdemain. If he intended to end on a provocative note, he succeeded more in yanking the rug out from under his own finely-wrought arguments.

David Hockney's watercolors are on the whole unremarkable, having a tossed- off look. But this is a painter's diary as well as a writer's, so one shouldn't expect as finished a product as one otherwise would. Admirers of Hockney will on the whole be satisfied, but will recognize these aren't the real thing. His photographs are much more interesting, and pleasingly eccentric. His lens focuses on the detail rather than the whole: bicycle seats, steering wheels, sleeping pigs, laundry hung out to dry, and on a goose cooped up in a funny way.

I don't think either Hockney's artwork or Spender's diary could stand alone, but together in this entertaining and handsomely produced book they succeed. As with other books of this kind, it is best browsed through gradually rather than read at a sitting. And as with its many cousins in the field of China travel, it will most likely appeal to those who have been there themselves, or are thinking about going.