The evening had a special Washington elegance: glowing fireplaces, expensive tweeds, classic wines and household names of the cave dweller's capital -- Joan Mondale, Averell and Pamela Harriman, Robert McNamara, Evangeline Bruce and Susan Mary Alsop.

Along with the David Brinkleys and the Tom Bradens, who co-hosted Monday night's event, 100 other social Washingtonians had gathered to fe te one of their special own.

Bette Bao Lord, author of the new novel "Spring Moon," stood in blue silk and glory, her eyes welling.

"I can't believe this," she said. "I've been dreaming about this for five years. All my friends have come out in the rain. It's so nice to be back in Washington."

Lord's husband, Winston -- now head of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations -- stood by his wife for most of the evening at the Bradens' house, while friends recalled Winston's work as one of Henry Kissinger's top aides during the early '70s.

"They were a very sought-after couple when they were here," recalled Motion Picture Association czar Jack Valenti. "They were right at the nexus of power, and they were also quite engaging, bright and attractive. With that combination in this town, what more can you ask for? Everybody wanted them."

Everybody, including the Chinese government in 1973, which allowed Bette Lord to become one of the first, nonofficial Americans into China.

That journey -- harrowing and fascinating for the slender, dark-eyed Lord -- sparked "Spring Moon," which has already garnered $500,000 in paperback sales and will be reprinted in 11 languages.

Many of the guests who roamed through the Bradens' Chevy Chase house, munching on ever-present crudite's and stuffed mushrooms, had suprisingly -- for a Washington book party -- already read the book.

"It's the most poetic and lyrical novel I have read in 20 years," said Susan Mary Alsop.

It was already hot when Spring Moon's sedan chair left the House of Chang, turning down Pagoda Street toward the northwest footgate. Before dawn, gentle rains had fallen, so that in the morning light Soochow shimmered, a city of jade. Along the canals, fishermen in brown straw capes slipped through rising mists like phantoms, seen, then unseen. -- From "Spring Moon"

Bette and Winston Lord were part of the fifth official trip to China with Henry Kissinger, then secretary of state. While Winston Lord and Kissinger were working on the future of Chinese-American relations, Bette Lord was looking for her past. She broke off from the tour.

At first, she felt so fiercely isolated in her own homeland that she began a meticulous journal.

"No one would talk to me," says Lord, 42. "Hundreds of people would follow me and just stare when I walked in the street.

She is a trim, beautiful woman with waist-length hair worn in a bun.

"They knew I was a foreigner by the way I dressed . . . They wouldn't even talk to me when I talked Chinese. I would eat by myself in cafeterias as big as auditoriums. I thought I was going home . . . but I felt so lonely and very estranged in my own country. After 22 years of silence, they just didn't know what to say to an American . . ."

Lord traveled alone throughout the country for two weeks before arranging to meet her family in Shanghai.

"After having such a lonely experience initially, I was terribly apprehensive about meeting my family," says Lord, her large brown eyes staring intently from beneath awesome eyelashes. "I thought I would feel right at home as soon as I hit Chinese earth, and when that didn't happen, I got more and more scared."

"When filial piety is gone, there can be no family. When family is gone, there can be no civilization. When civilization is gone, men are no better than beasts." -- from "Spring Moon"

Her anxieties escalated, she recalls, when the train taking her to meet her family pulled into the station. Peering out the window, she spotted members of her family toting tiny books. "I was sure they were books of the Mao Tse-tung communist philosophy. I thought we were going to spend the entire trip trading political slogans."

The books turned out to be Chinese-American dictionaries.

"That's when I knew everything was all right. There might have been a cultural gap between the countries, but there was no gap between us. There were no tensions. Instead, there was a feeling that we had never left each other's lives. I felt I had finally come home."

"Deliberately Spring Moon's eyes swept the room, lingering upon each of the clansmen who belonged to the House of Chang. None were truly alike, many were as different as only brothers can be, one was separated from another by generations. Yet among them existed a kinship that bound them irrevocably, so whatever path, and however far they traveled, each would continue to live in the shadow of his ancestors . . ."

During her two-month stay, Lord realized it was the art of Chinese conversation she had missed the most. "They don't have televisions or other forms of entertainment so they are forced to talk to each other," she says. "For hours and hours we talked. I realized that the Chinese really understand themselves. They are very individualistic people."

Lord returned to Washington and began her book. She finished it in the duplex apartment on New York's fashionable East Side where she now lives with her husband and two teen-age children.

She toiled from midnight to 5 a.m. for six years to complete "Spring Moon," her second novel.

"I'm not a morning person," says Lord. "It's so quiet at night, and this way I could be free for Winston and the children."

"She's a real monster in the morning unless she has two cups of coffee," says Winston Lord, who for the most part silently watches his wife during the interview.

"I've had my share of the limelight, now it's her turn," he says. "Actually, I'm delighted by her success. Now I can retire in a few months."

Bette Lord is articulate, bright and animated. She only glances at her husband for a nod when potentially touchy international questions arise, such as whether there is one China or two. He intervenes for the same reasons. "My husband is a public figure so I have to be careful," she says uncomfortably.

Bette Lord was born in Shanghai in 1938. Her family moved to the United States when she was 8 -- when her father, a Chinese government official, was assigned to New York City.

When the Communists took over in China, the family stayed in New York. A younger sister, who had remained in China, wasn't able to escape until 1962. The story of the sisters' reunion became the basis of Lord's first book, "Eighth Moon."

The new book -- initially intended to be nonfiction but altered when Lord realized it could jeopardize her family still in China -- begins in the fifth year of the reign of Emperor Kuang Hsa, in 1892, and chronicles the fictional Chang family through the primary character, Spring Moon. Following the young girl's evolution to matriarch of the clan, Lord weaves the historical and cultural plot around characters named Spring Moon, Plum Blossom, Bold Talent and Venerable Old.

"I was not interested in telling a political story," says Lord. "I wanted to tell the story of a culture, of the Cultural Revolution, of what really happened.

"The Chinese have been through so much, and they are so tempered by disappointment and can understand hardship. They accept it with grace, as a part of history. They are more philosophical and fatalistic."

"The more he had learned, the less he had dared tell his father. How could he possibly make Venerable understand that the machines he had been sent to study were only the manifestations of western strength, not its source? The roots were so deep in western thought, in a way of life infinitely more alien than railroads and reapers, infinitely more difficult for China to absorb." "Normalization is so important, but I would caution Americans about having high expectations . . ." says Bette Lord. "We must judge China by what she is now, not by what we expect her to be."

"She's a very special lady," said Pamela Harriman at the cocktail party Monday evening.

"Winston was always the dominant personality, but Bette was a shining star in her own right," said David Brinkley, adding, "You know, she's a terrific poker player."

All around the glowing fireplaces, guests tossed verbal bouquets to Bette Lord. But Washington cocktail parties being what they are, there were other pressing matters at hand.

Former World Bank president Robert McNamara slowly related what appeared to be a very funny story to a friend while, unknown to him, Chinese Ambassador Zemin Chai and an interpreter patiently waited for a word.

Several minutes later:

McNamara: "Mr. Ambassador, so nice to see you. Your government invited me to your country next spring, and I'm really looking forward to it."

Chai: "Before you left the World Bank, you did your best to help my country."

McNamara: "It was a labor of love."

Chai: "And now everything is fine. Next month we visit . . ."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the crowded living room, columnists' wives Ann Buchwald (wife of Art) and Kay Evans (wife of Rowland) lamented over last week's minor tragedy which occurred right there in the Braden living room.

Evans: "Ann, I'm so sorry about the purple suit. I should have called you."

Buchwald: "Do you believe that? But who cares? These things happen."

Nosey bystander: "What purple suit?"

Buchwald: "We own the same purple Adolfo suit, and we both wore it to a wedding here last week. And listen to this. We both shot our whole wad on the same Adolfo evening dress."

Evans: "Oh, no. You ordered the same gold lame' pants and top with the black jacket?"

Buchwald: "Yes, it won't be in until November."

Evans: "Well, I'll call you, I promise. I'll call you when I wear mine."

As the evening wound down, it appeared to be the end of a near-perfect party for Bette Bao Lord. Only her good friends Henry and Nancy Kissinger couldn't be there. "They're in Australia, but Nancy read the book and loved it," said Bette Lord. "Henry bucked me up while I was writing it. He took it with him to Australia to read."

At the door, hostess Joan Braden watched her guests filter out into the rainy night. Of the Lords she said, "We love them so much."