From his first days in China, John Zeidman was determined to shun the marked path the authorities had established for foreigners.

He rode his bicycle on Peking's winding back streets to see another side of China not offered in official tours. In a country that restricts informal contact between its residents and foreigners, Zeidman, a graduate of Sidwell Friends School in Washington, went camping with Chinese youths his age and met Peking law students, artists and Red Army soldiers.

Then, four months after his arrival as an exchange student, Zeidman fell ill on his 20th birthday. He had contracted viral encephalitis, a disease common in China. Three months later, he died.

His father, Philip F. Zeidman, a Washington lawyer, said that within a year of his son's death in January 1982 family members and friends, John's classmates, people interested in Sidwell Friends School and in Chinese studies raised $170,000 to set up a memorial fund.

Last night, Zeidman's family and friends and government officials of China and Taiwan, gathered at Sidwell Friends School to inaugurate the Chinese studies program in his honor.

"We did not want plaques and monuments," Zeidman's father said. "We wanted a living memorial to what he was trying to do, to what he was trying to develop in himself."

The Chinese studies program, which was initiated last night with a lecture by John King Fairbank, a Harvard University professor emeritus who is one of America's foremost experts on China, is the first of its kind at any area high school.

The program will include classes in the Chinese language and a course called Chinese Area Study, which will cover the cultural, economic and political history of China from the imperial reigns to the present day.

Each year, there will be lectures, concerts and other cultural events open to the public, said Lucia Buchanan Pierce, an Asian studies specialist who will head the program.

"One of the other aims of the program is to set up an exchange program" with China, Pierce said. She said the school will seek grants from foundations to add to the memorial fund in the future.

"This is very much John's program. He was fully convinced that this country would not get the full benefit of the reopening of the window to China unless his generation was sufficiently exposed to the Chinese culture and language," Philip Zeidman said.

Fairbank, who touched on such topics in his lecture as Taiwan-China relations, American influence in East Asia, and human rights in China, said that one of the main stumbling blocks to smooth relations between the United States and mainland China is "the different values on either side, which are products of different historical traditions and present-day circumstances.

"This is why," Fairbank said, "the effort here at Sidwell to bring Chinese history into the curriculum is one of the most important things we can do."

The people who knew John Zeidman inevitably describe him as "ebullient, indomitable, irrepressible."

The handsome, burly youth was best known at Sidwell as the founder of the school's Current Events Club, but he was also a shot putter for the track team and member of the drama club.

"Energy just sort of seeped out of him," said Nathan Szanton, a former Sidwell track star who was one of John's classmates.

"He was always running around the track, telling people to run faster. One time I thought there was no way I could run any faster. But all I could hear was John's voice screaming at me not to slow down and that really sticks in my mind. I went on to win the race," recalled Szanton, who is now studying at Harvard.

John's interest in China began with a trip he and his family made to the country in 1979. Afterward, John enrolled in Duke University as a Chinese studies major.

In his sophomore year there, he was accepted into a Chinese exchange program--one sponsored by the University of Massachusetts-- and began a year of study at Beijing Normal University in Peking.

He gave his family a running narrative of his life in China on the cassettes he sent home. "I have almost begun to feel like a native. I can move around the city . . . . I have started to wear Chinese clothes . . . ," he said.

He told of speaking Chinese for hours at a time, and described what it was like to be the only American visiting a tiny village as crowds of curious Chinese kept parting a path for his towering frame. "I realized how Moses felt when he got to the Red Sea," he said.

The inroads John Zeidman made in his brief time in China did not go unnoticed there. In his memory, Beijing Normal University donated 71 books to Sidwell's program. The vice president of the university also sent a telegram. It said:

"The young Zeidman loved the Chinese people and studied the Chinese language hard. The peoples of China and the U.S. have lost a great son."