In 1966, Zuohuang Chen had his dream postponed. He had just graduated from the high school level of the Central Conservatory of Beijing when the Cultural Revolution began. He was sent to an army farm in the interior, where he planted rice for four years. "At the time, they had this crazy idea," he says. "They thought they could purify my soul of symphonic music.

"I kept up my secret music studies over the years, keeping up my dream to be a music conductor," he adds.

His dream proved stronger than the catastrophic revolution. At the Kennedy Center tomorrow night, Chen, now 40, will lead the Central Philharmonic Orchestra of China as its principal conductor. After years of suppression and then rebuilding, the orchestra is making its historic first tour to the West, with a program of Berlioz, Elgar and Dvorak.

"We're facing the situation that we should go out of China to join the mainstream of symphonic music," Chen says. "We've been preparing for this tour for many years."

In 1966, millions of the young Red Guards, carrying portraits of Mao and waving copies of his "little red book," marched through the cities and countryside in a campaign against the feudal past and bourgeois influences of the present. Educators, experts and other exponents of old thought and culture were attacked. Museums, schools and homes were ransacked. Old books and works of art, everything from Confucian texts to recordings of Beethoven, were destroyed.

The orchestra was particularly hard hit. After 10 years of promising growth, with guidance by Russian and East German conductors, it was just beginning to earn international recognition at the onset of the revolution. "It was a disaster for the whole nation, and symphonic orchestra was no exception," says Chen. "Western music was forbidden, not supposed to touch them. The only pieces the orchestra played were two or three pieces of Chinese revolutionary music.

"It was a big setback for the public music life, for the whole of society's cultural life. To me, Chinese people had been taken away from the right to enjoy this great musical heritage of all mankind. Recently, it has been so happy to see people becoming aware that they do have this right to enjoy classical music or symphonic music."

Renewed appreciation of western classical music is just one aspect of China's extensive programs to improve cultural life and education. And Chen's experience, although an outstanding example, is just one case in many.

In 1977, he reentered the Central Conservatory, among the first to do so after the revolution. Completing the five-year conducting and composition program in just two, he passed the national examination in music and was selected by the Ministry of Culture to become the first Chinese conductor to study music in the United States. He has spent most of the past seven years in this country, working extensively with Seiji Ozawa, music director of the Boston Symphony, as well as Kurt Masur and Andre' Previn. He has conducted many orchestras in the United States, Mexico and Europe. Returning to China in 1986, he was honored as the first doctor of musical arts of the People's Republic of China and was appointed principal conductor for the Central Philharmonic's American debut tour.

Since 1980, under the new "open door" policies, the orchestra has invited many foreign conductors and soloists to work with it, including Ozawa, Herbert von Karajan, Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin. Many of the younger players have trained in the United States. The orchestra has expanded its repertoire, performing more than 400 new pieces. And it has attracted increasing audiences, especially younger individuals.

"Western classical music has become very -- how do you say it -- very hot thing," says Chen. "There's a new sense in China in that they want to be more aware about it. This orchestra has to lead the classical music life in this country."

Chen also believes that the orchestra must take the lead in cultural exchange. "Symphonic music starts from Western European cultural tradition, but it becomes a cultural heritage for all mankind in the world," he says. "Chinese composers should contribute to this heritage as well. We should support and introduce Chinese composers' works, not only in China but to the rest of the world."