IMAGINE a country where bus drivers rock out to repetitive tapes of the Pointer Sisters, where high school girls read Sidney Sheldon in stairwells during their lunch hour. A country where over 50,000 titles a year are published -- where buyers from bookstore chains often get first look at an upcoming work so that they can tell the publishers what kind of print-run to plan for.

Imagine a country where poets get published, but very few people come to their readings. Where books on self-help sell like crazy. Where serious novelists regard their national, pretty-girl best seller with the monumental good manners of the truly irritated: Why is it that the young woman's name is on everybody's lips, when some of these men have devoted their lives to literature and all they've got to show for it is an associate professorship somewhere, and a following of a few thousand readers? A country where publishers literally bury their hands in their hair as they say: "Our biggest problem is distribution! If we could only solve the problem of distribution!"

Yes, it's China. The tape on the bus is an oldie but goodie. You could never get tired of it. "Jump!" those sisters sing. "Jump in!" The Sidney Sheldon best seller is If Tomorrow Comes, published in 1985 and recently available in China -- in four (maybe six) separately translated editions. Nobody likes to use a word like "pirating," but Sidney Sheldon hasn't seen a penny (or a fen) off any of these Chinese sales. (This problem -- of international copyright -- will come up again and again during our stay.) The poets here seem like poets everywhere -- Why, their whole demeanor suggests, doesn't the reading public like poetry? The self-help books enjoying a dramatic resurgence now are new volumes on Qi Gong, a way of evoking chi or healing energy, by posture, walking, breathing. Qi Gong, used correctly, is said to have cured "incurable" cancers. These books are very much in the mainstream of Chinese publishing -- two of them published by the Xi'an Jiatong University Press. Qi Gong books have enjoyed immense popularity since the events of June 1989, perhaps because these skills give practitioners the ability to rise above the press and stress of everyday life.

As for those male authors and the best-selling female, the young woman in question is Wang Anyi, the author of Baotown (Norton, 1989) and Love in the Beautiful Valley, who, besides her obvious talent, has lucked into a great translator, Martha Avery. (Wang Anyi's editor, Peggy Fox from New Directions, was present on this trip to China. The serious men, with all their own good work, couldn't help but be a little bent about it.) As for distribution -- well, what is harder than books to distribute across a vast country with challenging geography and complex social problems? Ask distributors in the United States. A Chinese Wecome

WE ARE part of a small writers and publishers delegation led by Marjorie Fletcher, a New England poet and publisher, who, on another trip to China three years ago, realized that a "larger contribution" could be made by putting Chinese and Americans together in a way that would help both cultures. Last year's delegation, scheduled for June, was canceled. This year -- as nine of us visit Beijing, Xi'an, Hangzhou, Shanghai -- we are repeatedly greeted with bravado; bravura good manners: "Warmly welcome! We have been waiting for you for a year!" We're the first such delegation to visit since "The Event" (their umbrella word for the June 4 incident at Tiananmen Square), or so we're told. We meet writers famous in their country and around the world; we meet executives from the Chinese equivalents of Random House and Simon and Schuster. We are treated royally. With few exceptions, at the request of people we saw, I won't be specific about names of people or cities. Everyone wants to be correct. No one wants, even inadvertantly, to be seditious.

Our visit is official and breaks down four ways: Meetings in each city with leading writers. More meetings with local and national publishers. Sightseeing trips. Lavish banquets with writers, publishers, party officials. Then two extra visits. One to a Xinhua bookstore, part of a nationwide chain. A social call in Shanghai to the head of the Institute that has arranged this trip.

Those who have been to China know The Drill: the hot tea everywhere -- whether in luxurious surroundings or a bare-boards workroom. The territorial jostling of translators, the stilted introductions. The exchange of business cards. The halting questions. The answers that don't necessarily pertain. The wrangling of translators once again. The jokes. The boisterous laughter. The chance recognitions. The goodbyes.

Somewhere in the first ten minutes of each meeting it becomes evident that we're asking things of each other that can't be given. The Chinese aren't going to buy our books because -- why should they? And the Americans can't/won't buy Chinese books. The Chinese don't recognize international copyright laws. Besides, most of the English translations are . . . wanting. We end up comparing notes about our lives, our literatures.

When asked about literary schools, the authors in Beijing laugh. "In Szechuan," they say, "there are 40 different schools, one for each writer." And: "You can never adequately translate our work, especially in poetry. For instance, in our poetry, the wild goose image means expectation of a letter or a faraway note. How can this be adequately translated?" Another author says, "Everything in your country has the flavor of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Here, in China, we stay away!" The American delegation is bewildered, agog. What the heck are they talking about? An elder writer remarks: "In China the best books are not the best sellers. The public reads books on chi, love stories, adventure stories. If a serious author writes trash, he signs it with the pseudonym, 'From Hong Kong.' "

At least we're back on what seems like familiar ground, deploring the popular. "They sell Sidney Sheldon's If Tomorrow Comes from pushcarts." (Later, privately, another writer talks about another best-selling title, Lady Chatterley's Lover. "You come out at night, put down a blanket, stack up your books, sell them, fold your blanket and go away. They say the book is pornography, but I think it is serious literature of very high quality.")

About half way through this letter from China, I stop. I worry. I don't want to get anyone in trouble! The people we met were so kind, so funny, so smart. They so sweetly hid their disappointment that there were eight women and only one man in this delegation. They dealt with their recent political troubles in so many elegant and brave ways. They seemed to me to approach their reality the way an ingenious wife might cope with an unpredictable husband. With stubbornness, love; cynicism, love; anger, love. "I wrote before the Cultural Revolution," one writer told us. "And then I was severely criticized. Now when I write, not enough bookstores place orders so that I can even go into print. I am very depressed." Another writer referred lightly to June 4, 1989 as "that silly business." You had to hear it -- the voice of a person who's been through it all. Beyond Copyrights

THE PUBLISHERS had troubles of their own. Why weren't the Americans going to buy their books? One of the American delegation fretted in private: "The reason they've got me instead of the president of Random House, is because they won't sign contracts, they won't pay advances, they won't pay royalties!" Again, the question of copyright came up at almost every meeting. The Chinese are still working out domestic copyright for their own writers. As in so many exchanges with this society (which seems so different, yet so familiar), semantics and cultural hegemony get in the way. The West is quick to use the word "pirate" about a publisher who doesn't pay for a particular work, but in China, once you've become a "professional writer" you're supported forever. Which system is better? I've heard Harrison Salisbury, on another occasion, scold the Chinese for their "inferior" system. On the other hand, a Nelson Algren, a Henry Miller, God knows, a Carolyn See, wouldn't mind being supported in perpetuity as a writer.

It's worth noting that at a guest house in Hangzhou by the shores of West Lake, one publisher demonstrated free-market savvy. Zong Wenlong, President of Zhejiang People's Fine Arts Publishing House, was handsome and challenging and perpetually amused. He made sure that we all had copies of his 24-page four-color catalogue. Zong sells calendars, New Year's posters, and, within a larger exhibit of work from Hangzhou, two gorgeous books. One, Selected Contemporary Chinese Watercolor and Gouache Paintings, presented beautifully printed reproductions of artists whose work we hadn't seen in days of trouping through shops and museums. The other, an enormous book of black-and-white photographs called The Road, presented a radically objective, absolutely fascinating, pictorial history of the Chinese Revolution from the days of the Long March to the present. There was Lin Piao, before his fall. There was Deng Xiaoping when he was still a round-faced teenager. Not propaganda, more like the work of an early Cartier-Bresson. Amazing! And in the room, a sense of euphoria. These books should be seen! Zong smiled.

You hear that foreigners often aren't allowed in Chinese bookstores because of the "piracy" problem. But in one city we were given a tour of a branch of that Xinhua chain. Familiar book-selling stories, along with tea and litchi juice. Of 50,000 titles a year, only 20,000 make the chains. Children's books and how-to books sell well. Max Shulman, the late, wonderful humorist, somehow found his way into an Advanced English text. After some hesitancy and jokes, the manager asks us: How does America prevent shoplifting? (We don't, is the answer!) What about returns, we ask them. After ten minutes of translational wrangling, it turns out they don't have returns! The bookstore buys the book, and that's that. (Which explains the sadness of the writer who couldn't get his books published because the chains wouldn't order it.) After a while we go outside to get our picture taken on the street. A big crowd gathers. Westerners are scarce this year.

Which brings me to the two real barriers that stand between the two countries, assuming copyright problems can ever get ironed out. The first is translation. Not two different languages, but two different ways. Again and again, a member of our delegation, Professor Susan Dolling, a Chinese-American raised in Hong Kong and currently teaching in Texas, corrected the translations we were given. Mr. Yang, our official translator and a brilliant linguist, was not extraordinarily happy about this. But Dolling had what no one else on our travels had -- an intimate knowledge of both languages, both sets of customs, both mind sets, all the time. Failing a growing group of translators like Dolling (or Martha Avery), perhaps a tandem or troika system of translation might be set up. From Good Chinese to Bad English to Good English, or vice versa. The literature is there, and here. It's bonehead stupid for Americans and Chinese not to know each other except through Sidney Sheldon, and Jack London, and Gone With the Wind.

The larger barrier, of course, has to do with "The Event" of June 1989. Bad stuff. But let me speak personally as a novelist. Suppose I try to sell my next book's foreign rights to Norway, Sweden, Japan? Suppose instead of saying yes, they say: "Wait a minute! Didn't the United States invade Panama and kill some innocent citizens? What about the rest of Central America? And your homeless, rotting on streets of the richest country in the world? And isn't the phrase "S&L Bailout" just a nice name for helping crooks? And while we're at it, what about your Civil War? What about Hiroshima?" "Yes," I'd say. "I feel terrible about all that. But I've been spending the last four years writing a novel that I truly believe might raise, by a billionth of a centimeter, the quality of life on earth." What if every country started punishing the mid-list fiction writers, the poets of every other country they were upset by? It would be a hard day for literature all over the world.

We saw young writers whose real youth was lost in the Cultural Revolution, but they were still able to laugh and joke. And older writers who'd lost their teeth, but they were there. And we saw bus drivers rocking out in what could turn out to be a profound invitation to certain cautious American literary types: "Jump! Jump in!"

Carolyn See, president of PEN Center USA West, is completing her latest novel, "Making History."