In this celestial year of 4682, the tourist has become a fixture in China. Most visitors fly in to Shanghai and Peking, or come by train through Canton. And despite their growing numbers -- a 20 percent increase in 1983 over 1982 -- a tour of China still does not come equipped with many of the luxuries western tourists have come to expect. But now a few, very lucky tourists are entering China from the sea.

They are cruising in style, and comfort, to remote ports and exotic harbors, to see China from a new perspective. The QE2 now makes an occasional stop. Ships of the Royal Viking Line call on Chinese ports a few times each year. Then there's the Pearl of Scandinavia, a 425-passenger floating hotel that makes 14-day explorations of the Chinese coast.

The best part of the Pearl's cruise of China is that, unlike many cruises that feature hurried stops at boring port cities, passengers are given sufficient time ashore to actually get a feel for the people and the country.

The Pearl's "China Explorers" cruise starts after a flight to Tokyo and Osaka and an overnight stay in the modern port city of Kobe. The sky was almost black as the ship's massive bow thrusters vibrated into gear and gently pushed us away from the dock and out of Kobe. Soon, we were rolling gently through the Inland Sea and west, toward Korea and China.

For four years, the Pearl has been operating the "China Explorer's" cruise, visiting Korea, four Chinese ports and Hong Kong. We entered the calm sea of the Oryug inlet just before dawn, passing by a number of small islands and fishing villages. The mountain-ringed Korean port at Pusan was dead ahead. The air was hot, and the port was crowded with ships at anchor, each patiently waiting its turn in the inlet for permission to dock and be unloaded.

Pusan is a quick stop for the Pearl, the first and last port before China. South Korea's second city is the gateway to the country's ancient capital, at Kyongju, as well as a great shopping bargain: The international market offers buys on everything from shoes to jackets. On the east side of the city, there's a place called "Texas Town," an all-cash marketplace where you can get just about anything: Nike shoes for $4, "Members Only" jackets for $5 and designer luggage for $8.

Buses waited at Pier 2 to take the Pearl's passengers on a full-day tour of Kyongju or a half-day tour of Pusan. For the more adventurous, there was a host of Korean cabs waiting. (Most, if not all, of the drivers speak no English, although the Koreans have started mandatory English lessons for their cab drivers, in preparation for the 1988 Olympics.) A number of Korean students were also at the pier. They have studied English and politely offered their services as personal guides. It proved to be a good investment: The bus tours served as a sort of dress rehearsal for the rigors of touring that lay ahead in China, and by the end of the afternoon an exhausted group of Americans returned to the Pearl.

The ship left in darkness, steaming out across the Korea Strait and west into the Yellow Sea. There were few ships on the horizon, except for an occasional Chinese patrol boat curious to see the big white passenger ship. Shortly before dawn, two large tugboats suddenly appeared out of the mist to guide us into Dalian. (Known now primarily as Lu da, the city has also been called Port Arthur, Dairen and Dalian, which is how the Pearl's itinerary lists it.)

Stretched between the sea and green fertile hills, Dalian is China's northernmost major port. Dalian means "Great Junction." The Russians occupied the city twice, the last time shortly after World War II, and the Russian influence remains: domed churches and official-looking Stalinesque buildings, like the Dalian Hotel. The city may be China's third-largest trade port, but it sees relatively few foreign tourists since it is most accessible by sea. Thus the arrival of the Pearl was met with considerable interest and fanfare.

As we eased into the harbor, a few hundred schoolchildren, each dressed in colorful pink and white costumes and waving blue and scarlet flags and streamers, crowded onto the dock to greet us. Above them, hanging from a large crane used to load the big containerships, was a red and white banner: "Warmly welcome friends from Pearl of Scandinavia to Visit Dalian!" The children pounded drums, waved streamers and sang local folk songs. Their faces were meticulously painted, they wore feathery eyelashes and mascara. But their smiles were genuine.

"It is not such a new port for me," explained the Pearl's captain, Helmuth Klostermann. In 1968, when he was the captain of a Danish refrigerated ship, he often pulled into the port to load frozen rabbits and other items bound for Scandinavia. "It was a strange time then," he said. "People were marching in the streets and the Red Guard was everywhere. No one wanted to talk, and any suggestion of intellectualism was an invitation for attack. In those days," he said, "we just loaded our freight and left. Now, there is a new openness. The people openly engage us in conversation. A huge shroud has been lifted."

Certain things have not changed since Klostermann's freighter days. At the turn of the 20th century, when Dalian was under Japanese control, it was the center of the South Manchuria Railway. Some of the railway still remains as a working part of a city that remains a major rail center. Behind the crowd we could see large puffs of white smoke, belching out at a stacatto pace, from the stack of a vintage coal-fired steam locomotive. The train moved quickly on wide-gauge tracks inside the port, shuttling freight cars back and forth from waiting ships. Every 20 seconds the engineer would blast his horn, announcing another shipment as well as a warning to the crowds that had gathered to watch the strange new passenger ship.

"This is not our first time here with the Pearl," said Klostermann. "But we remain a novelty." After a quick tour of the city, we stopped at the Dalian zoo to see a panda. "Please do not be offended if he is too shy to want to see you," apologized our guide in advance. But the panda was in a playful mood, and posed for photos.

We were then taken to the Dalian International Seamen's Club for a large Chinese banquet lunch. It was hosted by the mayor and other local officials, and featured entertainment by many of the city's children. As we sampled a seemingly endless variety of Chinese dishes that kept turning on a lazy susan, the children sang a mixture of traditional Chinese and simple American songs, including "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," "Jingle Bells" and "I've Been Working on the Railroad." The lunch was followed by a series of toasts and a fast introduction to "maotai" -- a white alcohol with a taste somewhere between turpentine and aquavit. We staggered back to the ship for our afternoon departure to the port city of Tianjin, the gateway to Peking.

The buses were on the pier as we docked there early the next morning. Although the port is only 100 miles from China's capital city, it is a several-hour ride along narrow, bumpy roads that are crowded with bicycles, pushcarts, oxcarts and horses. Cars and buses are such a rarity that a caravan such as ours requires a police escort to be able to get through. Even with the help, our speed averaged only 35 miles an hour as we rocked and rolled through the countryside and into Peking. During the bus trip our guides sang folk songs ("Old MacDonald," "Jingle Bells," "I've Been Working on the Railroad" -- what a surprise) and discussed the American movies they had seen -- "Jaws," "Breaking Away" and "Superman" were their favorites.

The 1,007-room, $75-million Great Wall Hotel would be our home for the next three days. The 22-story hotel, which opened last year just in time to play a part in President Reagan's visit to China, is as much a culture shock to the Chinese as it was to me. It is not only Peking's largest first-class hotel, but its most western in style and design. Cocktail waitresses in the lobby bar were still struggling to negotiate the room in their new high-heeled shoes, and new state-approved hairstyles and stockings were creating their own special cultural revolution when we arrived.

Peking is a city under constant construction. Last year, 12 new hotels were added to the city, and this year almost 60 will add another 6,000 new rooms to ease the tourist crunch.

The day started early, with an attempt at a western-style breakfast (very salty bacon and overcooked eggs), followed by a bus trip to the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and a journey to the Ming Tombs. At the crowded south entrance to the Forbidden City, local Chinese stood to have their pictures taken in front of a black four-door Hungai sedan. On each of its fenders, the car had three small red flag insignias, signifying an automobile of ministerial rank. Nearby was a large street poster depicting a woman pushing a child in a stroller. "Society will flourish and family will be happy with one child," it proclaimed, one of many constant reminders that the government takes a dim view of citizens who do not heed its edict on population control.

At the Great Wall -- shrouded in fog the day we were there -- hundreds of discarded Polaroid 600 film boxes littered the ground, and souvenir shops were everywhere. The bus trip up a long and winding road was a treacherous adventure (passengers from the Pearl used to be sent by train, but too many of them got lost), but well worth it. Even in the fog, the wall was everything the posters portray it as being -- an astonishing architectural specimen of almost infinite proportions. The fog, in fact, helped perpetuate that impression.

The road branched nearby to lead us to the Ming Tombs, where 24 large pairs of stone animal and human statues stand silent guard.

"Welcome Home" read the banners that awaited us as we boarded the Pearl for the trip to Yantai and Shanghai. After the five-hour return bus trip (and more "Jingle Bells"), a hot shower and a stiff drink were comforting thoughts.

We sailed at midnight, heading south down the Yellow Sea and into Yantai, where windsurfers were cutting the water the next morning. Another few hundred schoolchildren were again waiting at the dock. The visit to Yantai, a coastal city in the north of Shandong peninsula, was a quick one.

The Pearl had saved the best city -- Shanghai -- for last. We crossed the border between the Yellow and the East China Sea, and almost immediately the ocean traffic began to change dramatically. Ships of every size and pedigree were everywhere as we turned into the mighty Yangtze River and then up the Wangpu into Shanghai.

It was a hot muggy morning as we sailed up the muddy, dirty Huangpu. Vessels of every description crowded the waterway, all fighting for a piece of the congested river: a normal day in a city that never sleeps. Soon after docking, I walked ashore; on the streets that paralleled the river, there were bicycles everywhere.

A friend had told me that I couldn't go to Shanghai without calling Joe Cheng. "Joe knows everything about Shanghai."

I took his advice and at the nearby Seaman's Club dialed the number he gave me. One hour later, Cheng, 66, rode up on his bicycle. The small, well-dressed man rushed over to shake my hand, clearly delighted to meet an American newcomer.

"C'mon," he said, gesturing. "We'll walk through the city and I'll show you the way it used to be." His English was fluent, his command of the city's history flawless: As I learned, he had lived (or, more appropriately, survived) through the city's more recent upheavals.

It began with his birth near the river in 1918, and the good times when his parents sent him to an English school and then a Catholic college. It continued with the Japanese occupation in World War II, the war's end and the arrival of the American navy, the slow exodus of Americans, the civil war and the Communist triumph over the Nationalist Chinese.

Cheng showed me the buildings that figured in the past (the former American Club is now a police station, for example, and the clock tower atop the Customs House -- where Cheng once worked -- chimes out "The East Is Red" precisely at 6 a.m. each morning). During China's cultural revolution, he was sent by local officials outside the city to dig air-raid shelters and later was moved to the countryside for re-education "because I spoke English and was considered a problem of spiritual pollution."

When diplomatic relations between China and the United States were restored in 1978, as an outgrowth of President Nixon's visit in 1972, Cheng was allowed to return home. Soon there was a push to learn English, and he was pressed into service as a teacher of the once-forbidden language. When President Carter visited the city in 1981, Cheng remembered, "I was at the consulate and said hello to him."

We stopped for a superb lunch at the Tung Feng Hotel (the former English Club, which once boasted the largest bar in Asia). Its most expensive rooms are about $18 a night.

Cheng said his one regret is that he may never be able to visit the United States -- his passport application was turned down in 1981 -- but his son and daughter are applying. And as we parted, he said: "Tell your friends that if they get to Shanghai and want to learn all about it, to go see Joe."

It was time to return to the ship. A few hours later, shortly after midnight, we sailed down the crowded river toward the South China Sea and our final destination, Hong Kong.

The sun was shining as we entered the frenetic harbor. An Air India 747 roared overhead toward an early-morning over-water landing on Kai Tak airport's only runway. The venerable hard-working boats of the Star Ferry zig-zagged across the bay between Hong Kong and Kowloon. At the Ocean terminal, buses waited to take a large group from the ship on a three-day post-cruise tour of the British colony. Daimler and Rolls-Royce limousines waited, engines running, to transport some of the luckier passengers to a welcome decompression at the luxurious Regent and Peninsula hotels. But unlike most China trips, this cruise had not been an ordeal but a relaxing, enlightening experience.