IN THE END, it is what one writer describes as "a feeling for the realities of China" that sets the I-was-there traveler apart from the desk-bound expert. Of all your souvenirsm this is the one your are likely to treasure most.

"The sense of China as a living reality may be an intangible benefit, but it is an invaluable one," writes John Israel in the 1982-83 edition of "The China Guidebook" by Fredric M. Kaplan and Arne J. de Keijzer (Houghton Mifflin/Eurasia Press, $12.95).

That "living reality," after all, is what going to the People's Republic of China is all about. Before you go in search of reality, though, you need to prepare yourself by reading as much as you can about China -- old and new. As one friend back from Beijing, Suzhou and Shanghai laments, "If I had any regrets, it was that I didn't have a chance to read enough before I went."

It's a common complaint. Boning up on everything that might prove practical, fascinating, helpful or useful would take a lifetime. In the last 14 years alone, the Library of Congress has received 5,748 books on China, 977 of them published since China and the United States normalized diplomatic relations in 1979.

Three of the more recent books -- "The China Guidebook", "The Morrow Travel Guide to the People's Republic of China" by Ruth Lor Malloy (Quill, $12.50) and "China Companion" by Evelyne Garside (Farrar/Straus/Giroux, $7.95) -- offer updated information on such travel necessities as hotels, transportation and restaurants. A fourth book, "China, Its History and Culture" by W. Scott Morton (McGraw-Hill, $7.95), traces the development of China's cultural and political history. All four books provide some insight into Chinese attitudes that will begin to make sense when you are finally seeing the Chinese Revolution for yourself.

"Hitherto the struggle has been to obtain economic freedom, enough of the necessities of life for all Chinese," writes Morton. "That struggle has been remarkably successful, but it is by no means over. Now, with the lid partially removed, one can see a new stress on civil rights and the rise of a demand from the masses for a greater measure of political freedom."

One way visitors can find out more about that epic struggle is to ask questions, says Malloy. The Chinese don't volunteer much information, and when they do it's usually the current political line. "Few are frank with their own ideas." Even so, she assures her readers that they need not be afraid to ask political questions as long as they do it in the "right spirit."

Up-to-date advice like Malloy's wasn't so readily available in March 1979, when I flew off to Beijing with an excited if relatively unprepared group of 18 other Washington Press Club members. We were told that we were the first group of journalists to be allowed into China after the renewed diplomatic contacts.

Traveling by plane, train, bus and boat in or between Beijing, Wuhan, Changsha, Shoashan, Guilin and Canton, we developed an informal lending library of whatever books any of us had brought along. It was catch-up at best but helped put into some perspective the official information we were getting from our Chinese tour guides and from the Chinese people we met at communes, factories, schools, clinics and other institutions.

Most of us wound up filling "books" of our own with the notes we took. I have a half dozen 160-page notebooks filled with my scrawl, the legibility of which depended upon where I was standing at the moment. It might have been in the kitchen of Beijing Kaoyadian (nicknamed the Sick Duck Restaurant because it's near the hospital) talking to chef Yuan Yao Ming about the 200 ducks he cooks every day, or in the mud-brick hut of a peasant family at the Hua Shan People's Commune across the Yangtse River from Wuhan or in the corridor of a Wuhan-bound train listening to one of our guides.

"If you protested the Cultural Revolution, you were detained," I have scribbled, quoting one such conversation as the train clicked along the tracks past terraced fields, irrigation ditches, tiled roofs and a litter of frolicking farmyard puppies that one guide said were awaiting shipment to the slaughterhouse.

"They beat me," my quotes continue. "I suffered very serious injuries on the back and head. Many others died. They tortured me every day. I never said anything about it after. I worked as a forced laborer. Mao didn't know what was going on. It was Lin Biao and his like who gave the instructions . . ."

That's part of the living reality I remember, and I doubt that you will travel very far in China before you encounter people whose lives were profoundly affected by the Cultural Revolution and the Gang of Four and are willing to talk about it. It's wise then to look for some explanation of those political events in even the most traditional guide books on China.

Garside's "China Companion" makes a feeble attempt at doing that but is greatly overshadowed by "The China Guidebook" and "The Guide to the People's Republic of China." If you have room for two books in your tote bag, take those, because even though they cover much of the same ground, the treatments are different and complement each other. "China, Its History and Culture," on the other hand, falls into another category. Read it before and after you make the trip but leave it at home.

Here are some other features of these books:

* "The China Guidebook": The emphasis is on life inside China today. There is no wasted verbiage in this straightforward, unemotional and scrupulously practical paperback. Crammed with facts, figures and scenic highlights, it is clearly aimed at the commercial traveler but is equally useful to the casual visitor journeying alone or with groups.

Experts write the chapters on China's schools, education, health care, religion, handicrafts, archaeology and travel for overseas Chinese. There are sections on hotels and restaurants, excursions, food in general and how to use chopsticks, what to pack, fares and rates, culture and recreation, shopping, government customs and currency regulations. Included are maps of some cities and of that part of the world.

Its authors claim it is the first Western book to be sold throughout China since 1949.

* "The Morrow Travel Guide": Author Malloy's Chinese ancestry benefits all readers, not just overseas Chinese for whom she has written a special chapter. She has been to China enough times to know that reality isn't just the obvious, so she's big on readers developing their powers of observation.

There is a checklist to sharpen those powers (example: Look for a pregnant woman, a cat, a boy carrying a baby). Among the questions she proposes asking the Chinese are: "How do people feel about the limit on the number of children they can have?" "Why are some communes richer than others?" and "How do you keep your young people from wanting to live in cities?"

Get off the beaten path, she urges, by trying a public bath, exploring an old cemetery, visiting a public market. Familiarize yourself with the meanings of Chinese designs that you'll find in palaces, temples, pagodas and museums. She provides illustrations of the more common ones.

Take along a pocket knife to cut fruit for snacks, a flashlight for caves you'll visit, some instant soup in case you tire of Chinese food. Buy a bicycle there, if that's your thing; then sell it when you leave.

There are equally practical chapters about choosing a good group tour, traveling alone, even buying property. She also urges you to brush up on your own country and its government since the Chinese are as curious about where you're coming from as you are about them.

* "China Companion": A directory with descriptions of 100 Chinese cities and other places of interest. Don't expect more than a once-over-lightly treatment of basic travel advice or of Chinese history, government or culture.

* "China, Its History and Culture": Not a guidebook but a highly readable condensation of 3,500 years of Chinese history and culture that will help put 20th-century China into a meaningful perspective.