THE CHINESE character 00 (tian) means field. Pronounce it, and you might have said to fill up, to complete, to jolt or to knock. You might have said peaceful, or named a lake in Yunnan. Or you might have pronounced the surname of Dr. H. C. Tien, a Peking-born psychiatrist of Lansing, Mich., who believes he has developed the definitive system for Chinese word proc

The problem of reforming a language with more than 50 dialects, thousands of words that sound alike and a written language of about 60,000 complex characters has been one of the great challenges of contemporary China. But modernization now means going beyond simplifying and unifying racy; it means adapting Chinese to the computer.

Consider a keyboard with 5,000 of the most commonly used characters -- or 10,000 or 20,000 -- and you get an idea of the dimensions of the challenge. Many computer experts have set about to untangle this Gordian knot, and many have come up with solutions: more than 400 Chinese language systems exist in China, and dozens of others have been developed outside. One reason so many systems exist is because it is so difficult to come up with a good one.

But Tien believes that with his system, the PX 2001, which is based on his invention of a new phonetic method of writing Chinese in Roman characters, he has found a way to adapt Chinese to any IBM- compatible personal computer -- a simple and inexpensive solution to a complicated and expensive problem. Adopting his system, he says, would cost the user only the price of the PC -- about $2,500 these days -- plus $795 for his software package. By contrast, a Chinese computer with hardware -- the IBM 5550, for instance -- costs between $5,000 and $6,000, can be used only for word processing in Chinese, and is as cumbersome to use as a Chinese dictionary. "I think ours will be the basis of Chinese computer processing," says Tien. "Anything we can do in English, we can do in Chinese."

He might add that anything that can be done in Chinese can be done on his PX 2001 word-processing system -- and then some. Part of the language reform carried out in China includes the development of pinyin, the phonetic spelling that makes China's capital Beijing instead of Peking and turns the name Mao Tse-tung into Mao Zedong. (Though many English-language newspapers, including this one, stick to the name "Peking," virtually all have adopted the custom of spelling most personal and place names according to the pinyin system.)

Another part of the reform has been the simplification of the traditional Chinese characters, which in most cases started out as stylized pictures of the words they represent. For example, in the most ancient form of writing found on the oracle bones (1766-1122 B.C.) the Chinese character for horse, pronounced ma, was written 00. By the Zhou Dynasty in the 11th century B.C., the 00 character looked like 00, and by the end of the Han Dynasty in 220 A.D., horse had become 00, the form it has retained into the 20th century. The problem with writing horse in this way is that it requires lifting the pen 10 times, or writing 10 strokes. To the Chinese government, eager to speed up reading and writing, 10 strokes were too many. In simplified characters, or putonghua, horse became 00, a three-stroke symbol.

Tien's computer system can write in pinyin and his new language, which he calls pinxxiee (pinshay) as well as in English or any other language based on the standard alphabet: it can also produce both the old complex characters and the simplified new ones. It can also do what pinyin cannot do.

Using pinyin, there is no way to know, in a language of four tones, that the ma for horse is of the third tone. In Tien's system, you would know that this is not the first tone ma, meaning mother, or the second tone ma, meaning hemp, or the fourth tone ma, meaning grasshopper. Most remarkably, you would know that this is not the third tone ma meaning locust. With Tien's system, horse could be only horse, and never a horse of another color.

Tien has worked on this puzzle in his spare time for 21 years and has now made his breakthrough. Ask him why he spent so much time and money on a seemingly impossible task, and he answers simply that he wanted "to make a contribution . . . You can't leave China behind. It gets a hold of you. Like the Jews seeking a homeland, there's always this tie . . . "

Tien and his wife Audrey, a Welsh-born nurse, settled in Lansing 25 years ago. It seemed like the right-sized town, explains Tien. It was safe, clean, a good place to raise children -- and not overrun with psychiatrists. Besides, adds his wife, it has the same latitude as Beijing. SUCH SYMMETRY is important to Tien, whose guiding principle is summed up in the word "synthesis." Fifteen years ago, he founded the Journal of Psychosynthesis, a periodical dedicated to the merger of Eastern and Western cultures.

He started on the long road to finding cultural synthesis early. The son of a Chinese diplomat, he left war-torn China at the age of 14 to accompany his family to Lisbon. On his first day at the British international school he was grouped with the Catholic youngsters during chapel; seeing them kneel and bow their heads, he was horrified -- kowtowing to an unseen emperor in the enlightened West? He would not kneel. The second day he was transferred to the Protestant group. There the children did not kneel, but bowed their heads and chanted. He was delighted about the vanished kneeling. "The Reformation, which had taken hundreds of years to accomplish passed through me in 24 hours like the flu." Still, the Chinese youth was not prepared to bow his head either. On the third day, he was transferred out of the Protestant group and given free time to roam the schoolyard on his own. It was lonely but, says Tien, "I learned to think independently."

In 1947, while his father was stationed at the United Nations, Tien enrolled in Adrian College in Michigan. He blended easily into the American heartland and has remained in Michigan ever since. Had he stayed in China, he says, his desire to learn about the human mind would have led to a study of philosophy and perhaps the life of a scholar. But in America, he gravitated toward science, first studying biology and chemistry at Adrian, then going on to the University of Michigan Medical School, where his interest in the mind led to special study of brain physiology and anatomy. Then he took up psychiatry and psychoanalysis, but still he had not learned all he wanted to about how the mind works. He went on to get one MS in neurology and another in electrical engineering.

Bringing all this background to his private practice in Lansing, Tien's working life seems a marvel of "synthesis." Ask if he hasn't found it difficult, this transition from the Chinese cultural tradition to becoming a psychiatric practitioner working in American family systems, and he answers with a convincing "no." The id and ego, he says, are universal, adding that "a Confucian superego can be just as severe as the Judeo-Christian superego."

TIEN'S OFFICE, like two halves of the brain inside the same skull, houses in apparent harmony his two disparate passions, psychiatry and the Chinese computer. The neat brick building sits nearly in the shadow of the pearl-colored dome of Michigan's state capitol down the street. Upstairs, rooms with muted wall fabric, tasteful pictures and large, comfortable chairs exude the reassuring atmosphere of the psychiatrist's clinic. Downstairs, in the windowless basement "laboratory," computers drone and printers clack while two young programmers work on Tien's endless projects.

In a sun-filled upstairs office, where books by Freud, Erikson and Spock mingle indiscriminately with titles in Chinese, even the lines between interviewer and interviewee become blurred. Tien, with his penchant for technology, switches on the video camera (he has one in each room) and records this reporter recording him on a very low- tech minicassette.

He speaks softly, his clasped hands calm across his white coat, his boyishly abundant hair hiding many of his 56 years. Close your eyes and, but for the occasional dropped article of the native Chinese speaker, you might think you are interviewing a native Michigander with a sensitive grasp of the problems of the modern American family. Open them, and you have trouble remembering just where you are.

For one thing, there are the interruptions. The receptionist knocks on the door to say that a patient is on the phone, crying. The psychiatrist excuses himself and the words "and how did you feel about that?" float back from the next room before the door is firmly shut.

In the overlapping way of things in Tien's domain, it is not surprising that the computer has encroached on some of psychiatry's "upstairs space." An upstairs room, in effect a minimuseum of the history of Chinese printing, holds all the apparatus Tien needed to develop his system.

At one end is the cumbersome Chinese typewriter, which holds each of its 2,500 characters on a small lead block set in a grid. To use it, an operator must scan the grid to find the correct character, then strike the imposing lever that lifts the block and hammers it against the paper. If the right character can't be found in the grid, the operator must search through boxes holding other characters and exchange blocks to change vocabulary. "That," says Tien picking up an abacus, "and this are what many offices call modern technology -- including the U.N. But most offices still do written business by hand."

Next to the typewriter is the huge IBM 34 computer with its behemoth printer, a kind of dinosaur among Chinese systems -- lumbering, inefficient and obsolete. "Very unimaginative," sniffs Tien, who goes on to explain that the 34 with an elaborate keyboard of several characters to a key is only an attempt to make an electronic model of the typewriter. It's also expensive; Tien bought his for $65,000 and is still paying it off.

But it was on the IBM 34 that he developed his own system; having worked it out on the big model he adapted it to the smallest. At the end of the table, attached to an ordinary keyboard sits the piece de resistance, the IBM PC.

WHAT MIGHT SEEM an obscure leap of logic to someone else is often perfectly logical to Tien. Like his breakthrough in thinking about the Chinese language, which grew naturally from his work as a psychiatrist with learning disabled children. In that capacity he became interested in pattern recognition and discovered what he calls "psychographics."

What does this figure represent? To

some of the children he asked, it was a duck, to others a rabbit. Says Tien, "It's just a question of how you see things."

Taking that concept and combining it with the principles of the Rorschach inkblot, he developed a test, which he calls the Organic Integrity Test, for rapid screening of patients with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Using color, form and texture, he asks patients (and wary journalists) to look at three pictures at a time and pick the two most similar to each other. The test, he says, is widely used.

After developing OIT, Tien began thinking about how to apply pattern recognition to the complexity of the Chinese language. By applying the concept of "most similarity" to Chinese ideographs, Tien realized they could be seen in more than one way. Each Chinese character incorporates one of 214 root components called radicals. The radical 00, for example, is a pictographic representation of a woman kneeling. But it could also be seen as 00, or two xs. Substituting, then, xx for the radical 00, and similarly finding a letter combination roughly equivalent to every other radical, he began to spell out a way to wed the Chinese character to the Roman alphabet.

Starting with pinyin spelling, he found that by a simple formula of letter doubling, he could easily solve the problem of tone designation; by adding his letter designation for each radical, he found a solution to the mind-breaking problem of too many homophones. Using his pinxxiee language, he can convert every pictograph into a corresponding "linear character," or phonetic word, each as unique and identifiable as a fingerprint -- and as the pictograph it represents.

Before Tien's linguistic breakthrough, this was considered impossible. To make that point, a Chinese language expert at the University of California at Los Angeles, Chao Yuen-ren, wrote a nonsense ditty using one homophone: Shi Shi Shi Shi Shi, its title runs in pinyin, followed by 103 repetitions of the same syllable. Shifn Shiih Shhiv Shixw Shhiij, replies Tien, "Shi Squire Savors Lions' Story." Punch in the pinxxiee on the keyboard and you can get a printout with pinxxiee, pinyin, the complex or simplified characters and what Tien calls a "first-level," or "dictionary," English translation. "Strive solve such story," the ending admonishes.

HAVING "solved such story" to this degree, Tien is still dissatisfied. Eventually he would like to achieve high- level computer translations "in order to facilitate transcultural communications around the globe." But so far, he says, fifth-level, or truly literate, computer translations remain in the complex realm of artificial intelligence.

So far Tien has succeeded in bringing the pictographic elements of Chinese and the phonetic elements of the alphabet into "one universe" -- to him, the most exciting cultural synthesis of all. But to others, perhaps the most concrete example of synthesis is found in the working model of his own life.

In some ways, his is the archetypal American success story. On a warm June evening he sits beside the backyard pool of his gracious home in East Lansing. An old friend and medical school classmate, allergist Dr. James Saker, comes by with his wife for dinner. The talk is of old school friends, football, mal- practice insurance and the cost of vacationing in Europe. Later, after a dinner of salmon and fresh vegetables from the garden, the guests retire to the den. Tien, his eternal bow tie slightly askew, offers liqueurs. Nestled among the cognacs is a bottle of mao-tai brought from China in 1983. Its fiery aftertaste serves as a reminder that there is more here than the University of Michigan medical class of '55.

And when Audrey Tien brings out the picture album after dinner, it isn't filled with memorabilia of the family and their four grown sons (two of whom are now in Beijing) but rather serves as a running account of the astonishing new event in their lives: the PX 2001 computer system and the swarm of interest it has created. "There's Ambassador Woodcock," she explains, "he came here to Lansing . . . and that's the mayor of Beijing. He stayed with us until 11:30 and wanted to sign an agreement on the spot . . . "

The testimony about Tien's achievement has been impressive -- even if no one has come forth to say his is the Chinese computer system. According to Hu Shui, of the Chinese Embassy in Washington, "Tien's is a very good system but not the best." And which one is the best? Every year, Hu says, a conference is sponsored by the president of Shanghai University to pick the best computer. The experts convene, ponder, then adjourn to meet again next year. There seems to be no easy way to decide what "the best" is.

Dr. Chu Yachan, a Chinese computer expert at the University of Maryland, contends that Tien's accomplishment is very impressive because his system is fast, convenient and, best of all, inexpensive. One drawback, he says, is that it wouldn't be useful for people who don't speak Mandarin and don't know pinyin (85 percent of mainland Chinese speak Mandarin, and all school children since 1958 have learned pin; Mandarin is also spoken on Taiwan, but pinyin is not used). Chu also worries the system may take a long time to learn to use.

According to Tien, a Mandarin speaker with a knowledge of pinyin could master the system in two to three weeks. But K. P. Chao, a translator at the United Nations who bought one of Tien's first prototypes, says it takes only a few days. Even though a system similar in concept to Tien's and developed by Asiagraphics of Long Island, came on the market at the same time, Chao preferred the PX 2001. "The way Tien adapted the radicals and tones was more scientific," Chao says.

All of this -- plus the invitations to speak, to show the system at conventions, to visit China, and the recent breakthrough sale to the U.S. Department of Commerce to produce a bilingual pamphlet on the Michigan-China trade -- threatens to throw the carefully balanced yin and yang of life in Lansing slightly out of kilter.

"It's time to market this, but I don't know anything about business . . . " Tien's voice trails off, his mind turning to matters at hand. Such as his practice, which absorbs so much energy; all morning he has been distracted, thinking about the patient who called crying. And then there is so much more to be done with his computer work. So far, for example, he has only processed 16,000 of the 60,000 Chinese characters. And that doesn't take into account the work that needs to be done on Chinese-English translation. Or improving the telegraph system.

"Did you know," he asks, "that to send a telegram in Chinese, an operator must look up each word in a code book of 10,000 characters, find the correct number, type it up, send the message, then on the receiving end the operator has to get out the code book and . . . " It is too cumbersome a thought to even complete. But by using even complete. But by using Tien's pinxxiee system, the characters can be automatically converted to code and called in over a telephone to

Western Union.

THE TIME has come to ask: suppose he finds the right investor, suppose there is a sudden demand for the PX 2001 in the vast Chinese market -- suppose he becomes very rich.

"Well," answers Tien, "I don't suppose anybody minds getting rich." Then, gestering at his already more than comfortable surroundings, he adds, "But how much does a person need?"

The real wealth, he insists, is in the potential for better communications between Chi speaking world, in the treasures of Chinese culture and literature that could be translated and synthesized by the world at large.

Consider poetry. "Did you know that one of the first famous antiwar poems was written by Du Fu in the Tang dynasty?" he asks. He slips a disc into the computer and brings up the file on the screen. Bing Che Xinng, it reads, and then: 00 00 00. After the title characters appears the entire text of the poem in pinxxiee and simplified characters on alternate lines. Another file brings up the title "Military March" and Tien's own fifth- level translation: Sir, did you hear about two

hundred Han counties in

Shandong, Thousands and tens of

thousands of villages

turned to weeds? There, only strong women

attend to hoes and plows,

there, in the fields no crop

grows . . . It's bad to have boys; it's

better to have girls: Girls may still marry the

neighbors; boys disappear

and are buried in a

hundred weeds. Sir, have you seen the

faraway Qinghai ground,

where the white bones lay

with no one caring since

ancient times? The new ghosts are

complaining as the old

ghosts weep. The sky is somber, and the

rain drizzles on and on

and on.