"Very big, China," a Noel Coward character says.

Certainly it is too big for any of us Westerners to understand. It may be too big even to write about.

"Just to begin with, every historian today has to decide when modern China starts," said Jonathan D. Spence, "whether with the Opium Wars or the Boxer Rebellion or in 1911 or with the fall of the last dynasty in 1912 or with the Long March . . . and so on."

Spence was in town to celebrate his new book, "The Gate of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and Their Revolution, 1895-1980." His approach is what one would expect from the Yale scholar who gave us an intimate portrait from the journals of an enlightened despot in "Emperor of China" and a wrenchingly real close-up of obscure peasants buried in 17th-century Shantung with "The Death of Woman Wang."

For Spence is one of those modern historians who dig beyond the rhetoric, the official chronicles and authorized biographies of the great to seek the truth about the past, the flavor and feel of it, in the palpable realities of day-to-day life, in mundane records of commerce, in diaries and letters of actual people, in all the minutiae that are, after all, the basic fabric from which we create what we call history.

"I didn't want to write about the obvious names in the revolution, Mao and Chou and Chiang and Deng and the others. I thought I could get at the subject better by looking at people who were caught up in it. So I chose these writers, articulate, some of them just my age, people who were forced to make the most catastrophic decisions, whose children were taken from them, their families broken up, lovers executed, who spent their lives in and out of prison."

At 45, a child of the London Blitz, son of a Dunkirk survivor, Spence has seen his share of war and turmoil. Before coming to this country in 1959, he served two years with the British army.

The heart of his book is three lives: Kang Youwei, a scholar who spoke out for radical reform as the new century began and the Ching dynasty died; the great writer Lu Xun, or Hsun, who turned from fiction to polemic as he led a rising generation of politicized students in the '20s; and finally the feminist writer Ding Ling.

Ding is alive today and in fact may visit Spence at Yale next spring. As she herself put it, quoted by Spence's book in a delicately worded speech upon her most recent rehabilitation in 1979:

"It has been 52 years since I began writing stories in 1927, though after 1958 there was a gap of 20 years. In the 1930s the Kuomintang banned my books; after 1958 we ourselves banned my books . . . "

Note the "we."

" . . . I am well over 70. I've spent time in a Kuomintang prison, and during the Great Cultural Revolution I spent time in a Gang of Four prison, so should I not follow the advice of my good-hearted friends who urged me not to ask questions about such matters, not to talk about them, and just to muddle along as best I can?"

After her lover Hu Yepin was executed by Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang forces in 1931, Ding kept the news from her mother, just as Kang Youwei had avoided telling his mother about his brother's execution in 1898. Through her various lives -- as a penniless student, a celebrated author at 22, a hunted and finally imprisoned communist conspirator -- Ding learned to make friends with hardship. In 1937, working with veterans of the Long March, "she grew accustomed to walking long distances barefoot; she learned not to expect trains, or roads, or even mules to ride in the rough terrain over which she traveled; she held it no discomfort not to wash face or teeth for days on end, and dressed in simple army clothes, with a cap on the back of her head."

Yet for all her passionate involvement in the cause, Spence observed, she kept her identity as a writer. "In a revolution, there can be no literature that isn't political," Spence said, "but Ding seems resistant to this message. She seems to have believed she could free her work from the past. On the other hand, you had Lu, whose creative life in fiction lasted less than four years before he decided to go straight into the political essay."

Ding's story jumps out at the modern reader because she has been a leader in the feminist movement in China, a powerful surge that dates from 1918 and has always been a central part of the revolution. Ding and the young women she taught and traveled with have fought for decades to get educational, political and economic rights. "Their common goal," Spence reports, "had been sought by her own mother 30 years before: the eradication of illiteracy, degrading poverty and foot-binding."

Spence has never met Ding Ling. He has visited China twice, in 1974 and 1979.

"I work from libraries," he said. "I spent a year just reading all these writers, once I'd made this jump and decided to tell the story through them. It's very difficult to write about China from China. Visitors still aren't allowed to see and do enough to get a complete picture. Westerners don't understand a lot of things, and the Chinese aren't allowed to talk much."

At first, he wasn't even sure which writers he would concentrate on, but as he read, a pattern began to emerge. Skillfully weaving the lives of his three literary radicals and their colleagues together with the outline of major events in the revolution, he came up with something that is more than conventional history, something richer, more immediate, something that breathes.

"These three people were real, they had rich lives and were articulate. The material is fresh. It would be hard to write a biography of Mao because he was so on his guard from youth. Chiang, too: He was formalized even younger. There is no good biography of him," Spence mused.

Luckily for him, the Chinese have always been very conscious of their past and tend to keep records. The key point here, he added, is the universality of Chinese ideographs, arguably the single greatest reason that China is one nation.

"The Chinese script is beyond dialect. Words that sound utterly different when spoken in the various dialects are the same when written. The Vietnamese used Chinese characters, the Koreans, too. You can walk through a park in China or Taiwan any day and see a couple old guys arguing, wildly gesticulating, and finally one of them takes his stick and draws an ideograph in the dust, and the other one looks at it and says, 'Oh, that Ching.' Because there are maybe 40 different meanings to the word Ching, all pronounced the same . . . but all written differently."

One Ching is of course the dynasty, and Spence couldn't resist a Ching joke he read the other day in his library.

"This is what broke 'em up in the 17th century," he said. "When the Manchus conquered the Ming armies in 1644, they had a big military display, and there was an accident: A stray arrow hit somebody in the bleachers. They carried him to a doctor with the arrow sticking right out of his body. The doctor took a saw and sawed the arrow off so it was level with his skin. 'Well aren't you going to take it out?' they said. 'Oh no,' said the doctor. "That's in the province of internal medicine.' "