THERE WAS something compelling about the picture of longtime Taiwan supporter Anna Chennault and China's top man Deng Xiaoping on the front pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times that Monday morning in early January. After three decades of political estrangement, it seemed a curious reconciliation of ideologies once so adamantly in conflict.

Like flashbacks from old movies, the enigmatic figure of Anna Chennault, GOP fund-raiser and hostess to Washington's powerful, rushed out of the past in a kaleidoscope of the roles she had played on center stage:

Anna Chennault, girl war correspondent who became the bride of the legendary Flying Tiger, commander Gen. Claire Chennault, 30 years her senior;

Anna Chennault, courageous widow and John Kennedy's symbol of U.S. compassion to thousands of refugees fleeing Chinese communism;

Anna Chennault, Dragon Lady of the Orient and Richard Nixon's high-class meddler into the 1968 Vietnam peace talks;

Anna Chennault, relentless partisan fighting Chiang Kai-shek's Cold War battle for Mainland China long after the blood had dried;

Finally, there on the front pages, was Anna Chennault in Peking, playing a new role as shuttle diplomat with Ronald Reagan's blessings.

It seemed that "The Transformation of Anna" had begun.

"You have to look at the real world and try to make an assessment of priorities," Anna Chennault, 55, is saying from behind the hand-carved desk in her 10th floor offices overlooking K Street.

The famous face, mirrored in a thousand front-page photographs, is an impenetrable reflection of that fragile young woman who stood at the side of the craggy-faced Air Force general until his death in 1958 and remained visible during her years alone. But she still has the lithe figure the exotic cheongsan was intended for, and she wears her by evening as gracefully as an empress.

On three of the walls are photographs of Chennault with presidents and prime ministers and others who have wielded political influence. In Washington alone her ties range from old Flying Tiger connections like columnist Joseph Alsop and Sen. Ted Stevens, and as disparate as columnist Jack Anderson, with whom she went into the restaurant business, and Koreagate figure Tongsun Park, with whom she helped establish the exclusive George Town Club.

On the remaining wall is a world map, and every day she assesses her priorities on it. For a dozen or more years as president of TAC International Inc., a consulting firm in aerospace and communications, she has traveled throughout Southeast Asia for such clients as The Flying Tiger Line, General Electric Co., Northrop Corp. and Grumman International Inc., assessing their priorities and a few of her own as she lobbies foreign governments.

It was Chennault's priorities that thrust her back into the spotlight after nearly a decade of being politically passe. Unexpectedly to many of her colleagues in the so-called China lobby -- a pro-Taiwan group long opposed to resumption of ties with Peking -- out of Peking that January morning came news reports that Chennault was back in town and some pictures showed her in half bow and full smile extending her hand to communist party leader Deng Xiaoping. A couple of days later, out of Taipei, came reports that Chennault also had met with Taiwan's President Chiang Ching-kuo.

Says Chennault of the journey the People's Republic had been inviting her to make ever since Deng Xiaoping visited the United States in 1979: "Low-key and meaningful, with blessings from all the high authorities involved."

And her interpretation of Taiwan's reaction to it: "Taiwan knows that I am not their citizen. They never said, 'We're upset that you're going.' They said they were glad I decided to look things over. They know I'll be fair -- both sides know I'll be fair."

"Theoretically," says her longtime friend and mentor, Thomas G. "The Cork" Corcoran, once an FDR brain truster and now Washington attorney, "she only went as a representative of the Republican Party, but in fact she's now a bridge and has made a way for Ronald Reagan to go to both Peking and Taipei."

Politicians have been using Anna Chennault for years. Using her to entertain for them, to introduce them to important people, to raise money for them, to carry their messages, even -- say some of her critics -- to do their dirty work.

Richard Nixon used her to get South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to hold up the Vietnam peace talks in 1968, an election-eve campaign tactic that may well have contributed to Nixon's victory over the late Hubert Humphrey and may have unnecessarily prolonged the war. Later, when Nixon's people fingered her for sabotaging the talks, she won a name that still rankles: "Dragon Lady."

"Oh, sure," says Corcoran, "people have used Anna scandalously, Nixon in particular. I know exactly what Nixon said to her and then he repudiated her. But Anna said nothing; she kept her mouth shut."

Says another acquaintance: "She serves a certain purpose among the Republicans and even if she knew she was being used she wouldn't perceive it as degrading. It's the role she carves out for herself."

Chennault says her 1968 role as Nixon's secret envoy to Thieu taught her a lesson. "If people like this ask me to do something again I'm going to make them put it in writing. I was younger, and maybe I was also naive. I was very anxious to do what they asked me to do because I felt so strongly about working with the Republican Party."

That part of her hasn't changed. Nor has her devotion to the Republican Party, which she now serves as a member of its executive committee. She is also head of the GOP's 5,000-member Heritage Council, which includes 26 nationalities federations. She thinks her "close contacts" within the party and the fact that she is the first Heritage Council chairman who is not of European descent particularly impressed her Chinese hosts.

"They recognize that she has pull," says a former associate, "but I can't believe they would take her seriously. The fact that she is getting used is secondary because she loves all the attention."

"They're not going to use her," says Corcoran, who as vice chairman of the Friends of Free China has already had to reassure members that Chennault has not sold out. "All she has done has been to make a way for others to go back like she did."

"The smart thing about the Chinese is they're so patient," Chennault laughs, wagging an emerald-and-diamond encircled finger to a question about whether Deng or other Chinese officials converted her over to communism.

It took Anna Chennault and the People's Republic of China 31 years to get together, but by the time she reached the Chinese mainland this year, each was ready for the other. Even "Uncle" Liao Cheng-zhi, No. 2 man in the National People's Congress and No. 3 in the Chinese Communist Party, was ready with her childhood nickname.

"Should I call you Boo-Boo?" asked Uncle Liao, who hadn't called her that since Hong Kong, to which Chennault's family fled in 1937 to escape the Japanese invaders.

In those days Uncle Liao (he was her mother's first cousin, but everybody always called him "uncle") was a shadowy figure moving in and out of 12-year-old Boo-Boo's life. Only much later did she learn that Uncle Liao had been working for the Communists in wartime Chung-king. The Nationalist government arrested him a number of times out of deference to his late father, who had been the first prime-minister to the father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen.

The elder Liao was assassinated in 1928. His murder never was solved by the Nationalists to the satisfaction of his widow, and her disillusionment, Chennault suggests in her autobiography, "The Education of Anna," published last year, probably led to Madame Liao and young Liao's conversion to communism.

Being a Liao and upwardly mobile -- "We always said the Liao and Chan families had many very talented members," says Anna Chan Chennault -- he made the legendary Long March to Yenan and eventually became a protege and assistant of Mao Tse-tung's.

So Boo-Boo and Uncle Liao had a lot to catch up on when they met in Peking, a place she hadn't seen since 1948, when she left China as the 23-year-old bride of Claire Chennault. Among uncle's bad news had been his banishment by the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution, among his good news the heart bypass operation he underwent last year in California, where nobody knew who he was. Nobody except Peking and Washington, who deliberately kept it quiet. And, oh yes, Boo-Boo.

Being in the know always has been Chennault's stock in trade. She was a child of the Double Fifth (the fifth day of the fifth moon in the Chinese calendar) destined -- an early teacher once told her -- to be a writer because her birthday fell on the Dragon Boat or Fifth Moon Festival, which had begun as a tribute to a writer.

In those days she was Chan Sheng Mai (Plum Blossom), the second of six daughters born to a professor of law at Peking University and his wife, both members of socially and politically prominent families. By 1937 the Sino-Japanese War had uprooted the Chans, sending Anna and her sisters with their ailing mother to Hong Kong and her father into the foreign service and off to Mexico. The parents never saw each other again because shortly thereafter the mother died of cancer.

By 1941 Hong Kong was no longer safe and Anna and her sisters fled advancing Japanese troops once again, this time back to the Chinese mainland along with thousands of their desperate countrymen. The journey separated the sisters. They were not reunited until members of Gen. Chennault's 14th Air Force, acting on orders from the general, who had met Anna's father in San Francisco four years earlier, found the four younger girls in a railroad boxcar somewhere between Kweiyang and Kunming.

The Chennault connection would eventually prove beneficial to young Anna Chan, by this time a reporter for the China New Agency (CNA). Because Chennault authorized a place for her aboard a military flight, she was transferred to postwar Shanghai and the coveted assignment of covering war crimes trials. It wasn't long before Chennault had asked her to marry him. She accepted him two years later.

But that wintry day a month ago when anna Chennault and Uncle Liao met in Peking, the talk was mostly of relatives. He told her that many of those her age who had been educated abroad in places like Japan, the United States, Europe and Taiwan were now back serving their country. Some were working on the bomb, she says, "because they cannot depend entirely on foreign countries. He told we have to be proud of the Chinese wherever they are, that that's why the world is a little afraid of the Chinese wherever they are."

It was essentially the same story that she and her traveling companions, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and his wife, Catherine, heard from other Chinese officials. Stevens, as majority whip, represented Majority Leader Howard Baker, who had declined the invitation from the Chinese because his wife was ill. Conferring with Reagan foreign policy adviser Richard Allen before they left, the Chennault-Stevens team was urged to write a report about their discussions with the Chinese and submit it to the Senate when they returned.

Sometimes the meetings were in English, sometimes in Chinese. According to Chennault, "they talked about the cultural revolution and the Gang of Four and how they had lost an entire generation. They told of their need for administrators and technicians to run the country and how they are having to reeducate the people in the new technology because when the Russians left China they took everything with them. Now the Chinese realize it was wrong to copy the Russians."

Says Sen. Baker of the mission and the subsequent Chennault-Stevens report: "I know everything that was talked about in English. Only Anna knows what was talked about in Chinese."

Put up in a government guest house rather than a hotel and treated "like heads of state," Chennault and Co. were provided a schedule so painstakingly arranged that there was even a king of Peking Revisited tour for Chennault, taking her to her grandfather's former home, the university where her father was dean and even her old grammar school.

"They found my first grade teacher," says Chennault, describing the reunion with the man who had predicted that she would one day be a writer. "You can see how thoroughly they did their homework."

The most flattering encounter, however, came when Chennault conferred with Deng Xiaoping. She says the Chinese leader wondered why Asian Americans such as herself are not utilized more in dealings with China and the rest of Asia.

"Why do all the so-called China experts have blue eyes and blond hair?" she says Deng asked her. "And not just Deng but also Foreign Minister Huang Hua asked why I was not more active in negotiations on Asian affairs."

It touched a responsive chord. The Reagan administration's appointment of Elizabeth Hanford Dole as presidential assisstant for public liaison with minority groups does not sit lightly with Anna Chennault. "What does she know about minorities?" asks Chennault. "How does she understand how we feel?"

She told Hua, "Well, we do have discrimination in this country and I not only face the problems of women but also the problem of race.'" (Worse than blacks?) "Oh, no comparison," says Chennault.

Says Corcoran, into whose care his longtime friend Gen. Chennault entrusted his young wife and their two small daughters after learning that he was dying of cancer: "Anna is against the humiliation of being thought she's a second-class race. She resents discrimination against her people. She wants to vindicate them by bringing them back to the proud place she thinks they belong in history."

During the inaugural festivities, when Chennault was everywhere, ("If you're the tail of Anna's kite you're all over the place," says Corcoran, her frequent escort), she often ran into Henry Kissinger.

"'Anna, you're doing my show,' he told me jokingly (about her shuttle diplomacy) -- but not all that jokingly," says Chennault, who makes it clear in her book that besides being put off by Kissinger's "famous ego" she never forgave him for "wooing the enemy," Mao Tse-tung and North Vietnam's Le Duc Tho.

"I said 'Henry, the world is so full of problems that there is room for people who have the talent and the knowledge to help solve them.'"

Chennault's own ego is not immune to stroking. At a recent dinner with Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Ghorbal, she says he teased that he was going to start calling her "Anna Sadat."

"I said, 'Oh, no, your president has done great work for the world.' Then the ambassador told me, 'You can, too.'"

In support of that, Corcoran thinks Ronald Reagan should appoint Chennault a roving ambassador in the tradition of roving ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. He says there are several things she is never going to do.

She is never going to get married, either to him or anybody else. "Anna is afraid that if she remarries she cannot be buried in that lovely place in Arlington Cemetery where her husband is buried," says Corcoran.

She is never going to take an administrative job or run for office because she's "a realist and knows that when you run for office you are eventually kicked out because people whom you can't do something for always outnumber people for whom you can," says Corcoran.

Corcoran calls her "the boy" of the Chan sisters which explains why she wants to achieve something in life besides money though "she is also Chinese and Chinese never let go of their money. And she represents a lot of leading corporations." "What she wants, says Corcoran, "isn't power but power for purpose, power to get a certain end."

Chennault says of power and her proximity to it: "In Washington the practice of politics and the pursuit of power seem to be everybody's business. If people say they are not interested in power or authority, then they are not being frank with themselves. In business you want to advance because promotions give you more authority. And more authority naturally is related to more power."

Former Minnesota congressman Walter Judd, a strident voice for the China lobby in bygone years, says the real news in Chennault's recent visit "was not that she was in Peking but that she paid a visit to Taiwan on the way back. That says we're going to treat our allies and friends on the basis of equality."

Judd maintains that "you can't be a good Chinese and also a Communist" and sees no evidence that Chennault is about to soften her stand against the Peking regime.

"The Chinese Communists will invite anybody they think might be able to exert influence in their favor. They are very shrewd and clever in their efforts to get people to shift support to the People's Republic. They want to get us to deliver our ally to their enemy," says Judd.

Chennault's critics say that in her quest for power she is not above playing both sides of the street, that even in the worst years of the cultural revolution she maintained secret channels of communication to Peking through Taipei.

"The kind of politicizing that goes on between the two countries is much more multi-level than meets the eye," says one.

Chennault claims to have strong feelings about the Carter administration's treatment of Taiwan as it prepared to resume relations with Peking. "You don't treat a friend of 43 years that way," she says. But she also talks of "a certain sorrow for my mother country, a country divided, a country that has so much to offer and yet because of the political situation and some wrong leaders took the wrong steps. I asked how they could keep it from happening again and they said they had learned a lesson. But learning a lesson doesn't mean you can prevent it."

Not long ago the Chinese Embassy in Washington invited guests over to see a movie called "Romance on Lushan Mountain." The plot was simple enough: Mainland Chinese boy, son of communist general, meets American-Chinese girl, daughter of ex-Nationalist general, at resort on Lushan Mountain. Love at first sight seems doomed when Gang of Four takes boy in for questioning. To protect boy, girl vows never to see him again.

Cut to following year: Boy meets same girl on same mountain. Arrest of Gang of Four eliminates that threat. Daddies are another story. Communist general agonizes all night before consenting to son's marriage to daughter of old enemy. All ends happily when ex-Nationalist general, living in U.S. since 1948, returns to China to give daughter away.

Moral of story: Old enemies can be friends and together will build a new China.

Fear of the Russian menace is pervasive among China's nearly one billion people. So it is for more than the prospect of sentimental journeys that their leaders hope to entice old enemies like the Anna Chennaults of the world back to the homeland.