BEIJING -- Winston Lord, the American ambassador to China, is fond of telling how he was greeted by a Chinese in one of this country's most remote provinces.
"I know who you are," the man said. "You're the husband of Bao Boyi, aren't you?"
He is, indeed, and proud enough of the fact not to mind sometimes being overshadowed by the celebrity of his wife in this, the land of her birth. Bao Boyi, as she is known in Chinese, is Bette Bao Lord -- novelist, hostess, diplomatic dynamo.
Bette Lord, born in Shanghai but raised in the United States from the age of 8, first toured China as an adult in 1978, a visit that provided the background for her bestselling novel "Spring Moon."
That trip became a search for her past among the ancient and honored customs of Chinese society. Today, having become a focal point in Chinese-American relations during her two years at the embassy here, she is finding her place in the present -- and future -- as a vibrant, powerful link between America and China's sometimes disaffected, often discouraged community of authors, artists and performers.
She presides over dinner parties for writers, collaborates with Chinese filmmakers, arranges regular showings of American movies for hundreds of Chinese intellectuals. She has arranged with friends and organizations in the United States to send American books for distribution here, and she has helped send Chinese writers and artists to study in the United States.
This she carries off, despite the pressures of her official diplomatic duties, with grace and seeming effortlessness. Still, she is in constant motion, moving with the swift fluidity of the dancer she once was, looking sometimes out of place in stiff, staid Beijing.
"Chinese who interview me are always surprised because I don't act like an official person," Lord said recently. "I don't just sit there. I move my hands a lot, and I like to laugh. But if you're an official in China, your face is supposed to be devoid of expression."
A recent issue of a Hong Kong magazine carries a picture of the slender, 5-foot-4 Lord dancing to a disco beat with a man in a Mao jacket who is none other than Wang Meng, Beijing's minister of culture.
"Having fun in China is not easy ... ," Lord said, "but I think I've been able to create an atmosphere where people feel at ease to do something like sing and dance and go a little crazy."
But her relationship with the Chinese is a two-way street. If she gives them a glimpse of life as seen through American eyes, her friends here provide the ambassador and other American diplomats with insights into the mysteries of China not available otherwise.
Scores of her relatives also help keep her in touch with Chinese reality. When Lord arranged a recent family reunion, 60 members of her Chinese family -- including some great-great-aunts -- showed up at the embassy.
"I love being here, because it's a wonderful time to observe China trying to change what has been," she says.
"I'm a writer and, of course, I'm a novelty. I'm a Chinese American who happens to be married to the U.S. ambassador to China. If I have a role here, it's because Chinese feel at ease with me and I feel at ease with them."
Lord, 49, had originally planned to work on her fourth novel during her diplomatic stay here, but official commitments and her involvement in local arts affairs have forced her to postpone that project.
Lately, the most enjoyable and perhaps most important part of her day is after the routine round of protocol is over. She's been staying up until 2 or 3 in the morning working with Chinese friends on her latest project to bring a little spontaneity to one of the world's most somber capitals -- a Chinese version of the Broadway revue "Ain't Misbehavin'."
She sees in the show -- a 24-song presentation of the music of Harlem jazz great Fats Waller -- a chance to break down the artistic walls of conventional Chinese theater and to open Chinese minds to what she calls the "drama of diversity."
Lord, who says she will finance the production with royalties from her writings, plans to take the show where professional American theatrical productions have not yet dared to go in China -- to ordinary people in schools, factories and local theaters.
There have been only four Chinese productions of American shows here since China was opened to western culture 16 years ago. As Lord explains it, each of these was a one-shot deal, available only to select Chinese audiences.
Lord describes theater as the "long-neglected orphan" of an otherwise expanding U.S.-China cultural relationship, and it is with "Ain't Misbehavin' " and similar ventures to follow that she hopes to leave her mark on the nation of her ancestors. The show is planned as the first in a series of productions that would bring American directors to work with the best of China's stage performers, and, eventually, she hopes to establish a foundation to support the project.
The Fats Waller show will be relatively easy to take on the road, she says, because it has a cast of only three women and two men and no elaborate sets or costumes.
Ying Ruocheng, a vice minister of culture and a prominent actor and director himself, supports the idea of using this pioneering first-run to draw financial support for future shows, Lord says. If "Ain't Misbehavin' " runs into problems with bureaucrats or Marxist ideologues, however, it will probably be because it projects an individualistic, happy-go-lucky attitude toward life. Or, as one of the characters sings: "I'm gonna do just as I want to ... t'aint nobody's business if I do." For some party apparatchiks, this may be hard to take.
Zhang Xinxin, a popular story writer and stage director who is working with Lord on the production, says that many Chinese may have trouble appreciating a musical that has no deep message and is meant only for enjoyment.
Zhang, 34, said translating the lyrics into Chinese and finding actors who can sing and dance is proving difficult. But if Zhang is worried, it's only because Lord is at times too confident.
"She has a Chinese face, but an American style," Zhang said. "We have to keep reminding her that China has problems, and that you can't always do everything that you want here."
Another Chinese commented that Lord may be walking a fine line between furthering U.S.-China cultural cooperation and antagonizing certain Chinese officials.
"The government is paying attention to her," he said.
At the embassy, meanwhile, some American officials and their wives have complained privately that Lord sometimes acts as though she, and not her husband, were the ambassador, and that she gets her way all too often.
Still, the prevailing view appears to be that if her high-profile style offends a few people, the result is worth it. As a member of a visiting congressional staff delegation put it recently, "A lot of Chinese think they can fool the Americans ... But they can't fool her." U.S. embassy counselor Darryl N. Johnson, who recently ended his tour here, voiced a similar opinion, saying: "She has Chinese friends and family relations which none of the rest of us ever will have -- no matter how hard we try."
Lord is acutely aware that there is a huge gap between her relatively luxurious surroundings and the austerity of ordinary Chinese life, and she is in awe of artists who are able to create under what seem intolerable living conditions, of those who make do by living with parents, sharing tight space with friends, or moving among borrowed apartments.
One of her close friends, singer Wang Yanyan, may have the talent to become an international star, but, Lord says, she was able to get her own housing just this year.
"I don't know how they can think when they're living sometimes four to a room, but they do," Lord says. "Some writers can only work after everyone else -- wife, mother, father, child -- goes to bed.
"I have a friend who writes sitting on a toilet, because it's the only private place in her apartment. If I had to write under those circumstances, would I be able to write anything at all?"
Lord's small study, where she writes with a word processor, is clean and quiet, splashed with pastel colors and lined with books -- some of which she will distribute among the Chinese. "In the United States, we just take books for granted," she says, an attitude few here can have.
Lord blames China's long isolation from much foreign literature and domestic restrictions placed on writers here for the country's failure to produce a contemporary world-class writer. "The Chinese are so proud of their Olympic gold medals," she says. "But where are the gold medals for writing, or for painting?"
Earlier this year, the Communist Party launched a propaganda offensive against western democratic ideas and influences and tightened its controls over publishing, putting an end to a relatively open atmosphere of debate. Since then, at least seven intellectuals have been ousted from the party and several journals have been shut down.
It has not been a good year for the friends of Bette Lord. Some intellectuals have been intimidated and are lying low; some have put their best work on hold, or stashed it in drawers waiting for a brighter day.
"For writers in this society who test the outer limits, the chilling effect is deep," Lord said. "It pains me to think of the untapped talent ... The books that haven't been written, the paintings that haven't been painted, the manuscripts stored away ... The loss of momentum."
A few writers are able to speak mockingly of their predicament. Lord says she has heard more than one lament, with a characteristically Chinese shrug: "I have the freedom to write whatever I want. What I don't have is the freedom to publish."
China, Lord says, now has the biggest opportunity it has ever had to become more artistically open. "For the long run, I'm very hopeful," she said, "because the people need reform, want reform, and support it."
Careful to note that the opinions offered are entirely her own, Lord says she admires the economic changes China's leaders have undertaken and admits to having said "a lot of cheerleading things" about them. But she also has some critical views and believes that if China wants to modernize, it must embrace new ideas along with western machinery and technology.
"I've always felt that what makes the West modern and dynamic is a way of thinking," she said. "Over the hundred years of history, it's always been a question for the Chinese of 'We want your machines, we want your sciences ... But we don't want your ideas.'
"A confident and proud China should not fear that it's suddenly going to lose its culture and its identity. That's not going to happen.