A Chinese restaurant in Bethesda, on the outskirts of Washington. Seated among the painted screens, vases and dragons is Nien Cheng, a regular customer. The chatter at the next table is of cheerful, trivial things but Cheng's conversation is of Red Guards, suffering and brutality.

Cheng, a 71-year-old widow, was a victim of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party's power struggle that led to a decade of turmoil and violence. In 1966, she was accused of being a British spy, arrested and, for 6 1/2 years, put in solitary confinement. Worse was to come: On her release, she discovered that her only daughter, an actress, had been beaten to death.

*Now living in Washington, she has written a 492-page book about her experiences, "Life and Death in Shanghai," which is being published in Britain next week and in the United States in March. Critics are calling it the most powerful account yet of the Cultural Revolution.

"The book is for my daughter," Cheng says, "and not only for her but for all the people I know -- and don't know -- who died."

Cheng was born in Peking, her father a vice minister in the navy. She went to Britain in 1935 to study at the London School of Economics, where she met her husband, who was studying international relations and law.

*When the couple returned to China three years later, much of it had fallen to the Japanese. Her husband joined the ministry of foreign affairs and they were sent to Australia, where they spent seven years helping to establish an embassy. On their return, her husband worked for the ministry in Shanghai, the job he held when the Communists came to power in 1949.

*They could have left but they were hopeful that the Communist regime could deal with some of the social injustices. "My husband could have gone anywhere in 1949," she says. "He had a PhD. He could have gone to America. He did not do it because we loved our country and wanted to share the fate of China."

With the government's approval, her husband became general manager of Shell in Shanghai. When he died of cancer in 1957, she joined the oil company as an adviser and remained there until the office closed shortly before the Cultural Revolution.

*She lived well in Shanghai. She was allowed to retain a big house and servants; she had jewelry, furs, a much-prized collection of porcelain and an occasional food hamper from Harrods. And she was an irresistible target for Chairman Mao's youthful Red Guards bent on destroying "class enemies."

The Red Guards, backed by Mao Tse-tung, had a mission to destroy the "Four Olds" -- old culture, old customs, old habits and old ways of thinking. Cheng became increasingly apprehensive as they paraded through the streets, wearing red armbands, beating drums and gongs and carrying portraits of Mao.

*"Sitting in the evening with the window open, I heard a truck pull up," she says. "I wondered which house was to be the target. My bell began to ring and there was a pounding of fists on the front gate." She let them in. Her house was torn apart, her clothes cut up, some of her porcelain smashed and many valuables stolen. "They burned books, including my English versions of the collected works of Marx and Engels and Lenin. They did not know what they were."

*She was put under house arrest and a month later was taken to the Number One Detention Center in Shanghai, the main prison for political prisoners -- "never in my life had I been in or even imagined a place that was so primitive and filthy." Throughout her time in prison, she was often interrogated, urged to confess that she was a British spy. But she refused.

*She fought her interrogators with Maoism. "I found Mao's 'Essay on Guerrilla Warfare' was very useful. He always talks about how a small band of guerrillas, if they seize the initiative, can defeat an enemy bigger than itself. So I took his advice." She learned thoroughly the Little Red Book and used the quotations in argument with her interrogators.

*Her beliefs are mainly Confucian but she is also a Christian. "I think all Chinese are Confucian," she says. "Some are Christian, some are Buddhist, but all are Confucian."

And she says, "I became a Christian when I married my husband. His mother was very devout. To please her, I became a Christian without knowing what I was getting into. Later I read about it and became interested. It was important when I was in prison. I sometimes recited the 23rd Psalm and it helped me calm down. 'Though I walk though the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.' It was so fitting."

*Her health worsened. Her gums deteriorated because of poor food and she eventually lost her teeth. Her cell was so cold that she caught pneumonia. She had hemorrhages. She was beaten. And for two weeks, handcuffs were put on her so tightly she thought she would lose her hands. She also underwent many "struggle sessions," psychological pressure applied by putting a victim in front of an audience. Sometimes the accusations and denunciations become so intense that the outcome is fatal. But Cheng says she defused the tension by laughing at her accusers.

*The worst period, she says, came toward the end of her stay in prison when she asked for new clothes. She was surprised to be given a set left by the Red Guards for her daughter, Meiping, when the house was ransacked. Cheng was also given her daughter's bedding and cutlery. She began to fear that her daughter was dead.

*"I had that feeling, as I touched the clothes. I was not sure. I wished I were wrong. You see the mug she drank from had tea stains. And the square face towel she liked, a dark rose color. When the Red Guards came to loot our home, she was using that towel. How could it be that the towel was just the same? It meant that she had not used it. The Red Guards had left her only the bare essentials and there was no reason for her to put it aside and buy another towel. And the clothes did not look worn. So even apart from the intuitive feeling, I had this evidence to suggest that she had died. But I was not sure and still clung to the hope that I was wrong."

*When she was released, she saw a young woman waiting for her beside a taxi, outside the prison gates. But it was her goddaughter. She was told by the authorities that her daughter, then 24, had committed suicide by jumping from a ninth-story window. But Cheng carried out her own investigation and discovered that Meiping had been killed by the Red Guards.

*"They wanted her to say she knew I was a spy. And they would have confronted me with that to persuade me to make a false confession. This is what they hoped and, of course, she refused. They beat her up but did not intend to kill her. They beat her too hard and then threw her out of a window." A man was convicted of the murder after Cheng left China but was given a suspended death sentence. Cheng says he is now free.

*Does she feel her stubbornness contributed to her daughter's death? "I assumed she was still alive. If I had confessed and they sentenced me, then I would have become a counterrevolutionary, my daughter would have been a member of a counterrevolutionary's family and her children forever and ever. I could not do that."

In the more liberal era following Mao's death in 1976, Cheng was "rehabilitated" and declared a victim of wrongful arrest. She went to one of the most peculiar government offices anywhere: the Bureau for Sorting Looted Goods. There she recovered some of her porcelain, but nothing else. Her bank account was unfrozen, and, knowing she was wealthy, relatives who had ignored her during the Cultural Revolution began to call.

Cheng applied to leave as soon as she could. She has two sisters in California and Hawaii and was given a passport to visit them. She went to Ottawa in 1980 and to Washington two years later. She hopes to become a U.S. citizen in 1988, and has been taking courses in American history and literature at American University.

*"When I lived in China after being 'rehabilitated,' I used to walk in the streets and it would remind me of my daughter. It was so painful. Here I see European faces and girls with blond hair and I am not reminded of her all the time." She adds: "Writing the book, I would often have terrible dreams and wake up not knowing where I was. But I no longer suffer from that. Since the book was finished last summer, it has been like another liberation. I no longer have wild dreams."

She keeps fit by doing tai chi, Chinese shadowboxing, early each morning in the garden outside her apartment. She dresses smartly in silk dresses made by a tailor in Shanghai. The only outwards sign of her ordeal are the scars on her wrists, the results of those two weeks in handcuffs. She seems cheerful, but when talking about her experiences she becomes detached, as if discussing a third person.

*She says she will send a copy of her book to the son of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Deng's son was also a victim of the Cultural Revolution, she says. According to some press accounts, he was paralyzed after being thrown out of a window by the Red Guard.

*She is not optimistic about China's future. "The problem is overwhelming. Deng Xiaoping realized the country could not go on in the old way and gave some concessions, a little economic freedom. But he is not ready to go a step further and trust the people politically."

*There is much cynicism about the Communist Party in China today, she says, which she believes is a result of Mao's elimination of old comrades, such as President Liu Shao-qi, during the Cultural Revolution. The accusations and counteraccusations, she says, not only strained credibility but revealed much about the luxurious way in which many leaders lived.

"The Chinese have a saying, 'Don't hit the mouse because he is standing on a valuable utensil.' They hit at Liu Shao-qi but did not realize that by smashing him, they were also smashing the Communist Party. One after another was denounced and the whole of the Communist Party was exposed."

*She says, "The Kuomintang is also very bad but at least they do not kill people who support them. They kill people who oppose them. But the Communists even kill people who support them. This is something senseless."