THE EARLY ARRIVAL OF DREAMS

Year in China

By Rosemary Mahoney

Fawcett Columbine. 325 pp. $18.95

When Rosemary Mahoney first met her students at a Chinese university, she thought some mistake had been made, that she'd been sent to the wrong room.

"I had been told that I would be teaching sophomores, and when I arrived, what I found was a group of students so shy and small and filled with awe at my presence that they resembled schoolchildren on their first outing to the zoo," writes Mahoney.

Despite her bewilderment at the start of her tour as a teacher of English in China, Mahoney caught on fast. She got to know nearly a dozen Chinese students and teachers well enough to bring their surprising individuality to life in "The Early Arrival of Dreams," a memoir of her year in China.

This is no easy feat in a country where officials often discourage friendships between Chinese and foreigners, unless those friendships serve official purposes.

Take, for example, the case of Ming Yu, a talented, graceful 27-year-old teacher, to whom this book is dedicated. Ming is strikingly bold and unable to lie. Because of her candor and her close relationship with a young Englishman teaching at the university, the university's Communist Party authorities treat her with suspicion and prevent her from realizing her dream of studying creative writing in the United States.

But Ming's quiet determination to be herself shines like an inspiration throughout this book. Ming's work unit -- the university's English department -- advises her to get married if she wants to study abroad. The authorities even have in mind a "good person" for her to marry.

Married people are favored for study abroad because if they love their families, they are regarded as certain to want to return to China. The family becomes a kind of ransom.

Ming, of course, rejects the work unit's advice. She remains instead faithful to her impossible love for the young Englishman.

Mahoney's students, meanwhile, who at first seemed so docile and tense, gradually reveal their own unorthodox views despite the university's attempts to impose conformity.

While angry with their government because of inflation, corruption and the "back door" relationships that rule society, the students fear the consequences of making their anger public.

Nevertheless, a few thousand students in Hangzhou joined in the street demonstrations that erupted in a number of cities in 1986-87. Hangzhou students then participated on a much larger scale in the startling protests of 1989.

How typical is Hangzhou University? As a reporter in China, I often heard stories of both joy and horror from foreigners teaching in provincial cities similar to those recorded by Mahoney. Her students seemed to be much more isolated and lacking in self-confidence than some of their activist counterparts living elsewhere in China. Many of the Hangzhou students, however, apparently shared with the activists a feeling of alienation from the Communist leadership.

Although Mahoney taught at Hangzhou University in 1987-88, before last year's massive student-led demonstrations and massacre of protesters near Tiananmen Square, her chronicle will nonetheless complement and probably surpass in depth many of the books written about the massacre and its aftermath.

Mahoney unveils her world of Chinese teachers, students and other intellectuals only gradually, permitting the reader to participate in her voyage of discovery.

She notes at the outset that she has re-created some conversations and changed many names and identities to protect her friends from the punishment often incurred by Chinese who tell the truth. And because of Mahoney's development of character and detail, one is constantly tempted to call this book a novel. But it is important to note that except for small details, these stories are true.

Her Chinese friends drive the author to both hope and despair. But what I will remember best about this book are not the frustrations the author encountered in China but the small triumphs achieved by her students, fellow teachers and other Chinese as they fought their largely silent daily battles.

Yu Xing, a teenage welder in a machine factory, relentlessly pursues Mahoney in his search of English conversation. Despite working as many as 10 hours a day at his factory, Yu, like so many Chinese, "had positively willed himself to learn English." He taught himself using books and tapes and the Voice of America on shortwave radio.

Mahoney's own emotions are often revealing. At one point, after warning her students not to judge African students at the university on what amounted to hearsay, she says, "as soon as I finished my little speech, I thought how futile and silly it seemed. Xenophobia, racism, rumor, and collective mistrust were deeply rooted elements of Chinese society, and in China the African students would be isolated for years to come."

At another point, she sharpens her lament: "As a foreigner, I was generally misconstrued and mistrusted, seen as an opportunity, as a child, and sometimes as a freak ..."

"Calmly, I told the people the things I thought so far about China: I told them how ill maintained the university was, how absurd it seemed that seven adults slept in one small room, how hazardous things were, how they seemed to be suffocated by rules and regulations and policies. I mentioned the littering and the stinking public bathrooms and anything else I could think of that shocked me or made me angry, and the people smiled. They agreed. Strangest of all, they seemed amused by my assessment ..."

But then finally, after a winter break during which she visits Japan, Mahoney feels "relieved to be back in China after the rigidity and coldness of Japan. Try though they might, the Chinese could not hide that they were human. Their struggles were always right out here on the street for everyone to see, and I felt grateful for that, and for their vitality, and was remorseful for whatever criticisms I had had of them."

The reviewer was The Washington Post's correspondent in China from 1985 to 1990.