THIS is not a simple "I saw China" book. Although it is written in the orthodox form of such books: a mixture of anecdotes, interviews and comment, it is a polemic and must stand alongside other such books, written from other points of view both pro and con. The author specifically rejects any claim that this is an academic exercise but does claim that it is a tale "told by the rural Chinese themselves."

Lacking firsthand knowledge of China or the time or opportunity to make their own in-depth studies, general readers browse through a selection of such books and then try to make up their minds what the truth about the People's Republic is. In such cases it is useful to know why each such book is written, why it is pro or con; in a word, who is grinding what axe.

Mosher is not subtle. He characterizes China as a "police state," a "totalitarian" state, and more than that, a hopeless case. Quoting another's words, he writes: "Will things get better? . . . I don't think so. Maybe in the next world. Or maybe in Hell." He gives the key to the meaning of his title--"Broken shoe" is the Chinese euphemism for a country woman who is a prostitute.

In the final pages, the man he names Lao Baixing, "Old Hundred Names," the Chinese colloquial for "the people," voices the conviction that things were better for the people before the establishment of the People's Republic. Harking back to the 1920s and 1930s, Lao Baixing says, "The village gentry were not bad men." "Times were good. People had money. You could buy anything." (His emphases). Mosher himself describes "the twenties and thirties . . . as a time of unprecedented prosperity." "The rural population of the region (Southwestern China) enjoyed a time of peace and plenty." I myself was in China then and it certainly was not so. I was in Canton, Nanking, Peking and Shanghai. In 1926, I traveled by land and mostly by road 1,400 miles from Wuhan to the northern border via Zhengzhou, Xian, Lanzhou and Ningxia. Since my father was a leading member of the governments of the day, I might be pardoned for seeing things in a rosy light, but I was appalled by China's poverty and plight. To say that was a time of peace and plenty is simply fatuous.

Yet according to Mosher, "things had been better before the revolution." "For the 400 million peasants of the South China heartland, the liberation has probably proved to be an empty, undigestible myth." Even after he had been in the countryside for some time, he says, he still doubted if, as the peasants informed him, things had really been better in the old days. What finally convinced him that his "informants" were right was a bizarre incident.

He was at a disinterment of an old matriarch's grave when the grave-digger dug up three copper spikes from the decayed coffin and commented, "They don't use spikes like this anymore. Now they just use cheap iron nails." Those three copper spikes ended his doubts that things were better in China in the old days of feudal landlordism, warlords and foreign domination. But more than that, Mosher believes that China's modernization under the People's Republic is problematical because "with the regime unable or unwilling to break out of the vicious vicissitudes of political campaigns, the necessary policy stability will not be forthcoming." The conclusion to be drawn from all this is hinted at by the fact of Mosher's "returning to Taiwan . . . at the end of (his) fieldwork" in the People's Republic.

He says that he began the writing of this book while "putting aside the esoteric and the academic, postponing the process of statistical analysis and sociological generalization." One would have thought that he would have done his statistical analysis before launching this wholesale condemnation of the communist regime.

Some of Mosher's points are pretty heavy-handed. The picture of a dead pig being de-haired whole in a cauldron of boiling water is followed on the next page by a peasant woman 7 1/2 months pregnant being prepared for an abortion. In addition, he recounts various atrocious incidents which occurred during the Cultural Revolution and other campaigns. The press in China under its "totalitarian censorship" itself provides many examples of the disgraceful activities of the so-called extremists, but Mosher, seeking confirmation of his own stories, finds it necessary to cite Hostage in Peking, a 1970s account by Anthony Grey, the Reuter correspondent.

With population growth threatening to inundate the economic gains, Mosher evidently agrees on the need for restraint. He describes the successes achieved in reaching a "strikingly reduced" birth rate but even here he feels it necessary to add, the "indisputable long-term advantages (of the population program) appeared to me to be offset over the short run by the negative reaction of Chinese families forced to forgo or even abort desired offspring." With him it is a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't." In the end, this jaundiced attitude becomes irritating.

As I see it, after spending 24 years in China (over 20 in the People's Republic) and the last 12 in the United States, China, because of its size, one billion population, place in the world and current development and potential, is of crucial importance to the peace of the world and the security of the United States. Misreading the Chinese situation in the past led to the most serious consequences in Korea and Vietnam. In today's world, a misreading of the Chinese situation could be disastrous. More than ever we need genuine, on-the-spot research studies.

China is at a crucial point in its history. Elements withinnthe Communist Party and government and in society at large are struggling, as they have for decades, to push the country towards a tightening of the grip of bureaucratic authoritarianism and toward totalitarianism or, on the other hand, toward the democratization which is the only way to combat dictatorship. Mosher speaks about shifts in policy, but he does not explain how these are brought about. Was the Gang of Four solely defeated by Deng Xiaoping who Mosher believes is "not all that different from Mao himself in political matters"? The answer is no. It was with the backing of the popular forces which gathered in anger in Peking during 1976, party members and nonparty members alike, to denounced the aged Mao as "Chin Shih Huang" (the first emperor of China), and Jiang Qing, his wife, as the "empress dowager," and those who became the Gang of Four (or Five). More than the fate of China depends on the outcome of this struggle.

U.S. policy towards China can be effective and of help to itself and China only if it is informed with an understanding of reality in China. Books such as this one by Steven Mosher perpetuate and reinforce unrealistic myths and prejudices. They help neither the United States nor the Chinese people.