John Paton Davies Jr., 91, a Foreign Service officer whose candid appraisal favoring American support for Communist over Nationalist forces in China in the 1940s made him one of the most prominent people purged from the State Department in the Red-hunting 1950s, died Dec. 23 of multiple organ failure at his home in Asheville, N.C.

As the Cold War began, with accusations rampant about "who lost China" to Mao Zedong's Communists in 1949, Mr. Davies was among many State Department figures, including John Stewart Service, John Carter Vincent and Oliver Edmund Clubb, to undergo loyalty hearings.

None of the nine security probes against him for perjury and other charges between 1948 and 1954 gave credence to the accusation of Mr. Davies's disloyalty. But after blistering criticism from Sens. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) and Patrick A. McCarran (D-Nev.), Secretary of State John Foster Dulles asked Mr. Davies to resign. Mr. Davies would not leave, believing that to do so would validate the accusations, and Dulles fired him for questionable "judgment, discretion and reliability."

Questions first had been raised about Mr. Davies's conduct because his State Department reports advised a more nuanced approach to communism in China than was politically palatable. In Washington, the prominent perception of communism was as a monolith.

Predicting Communist victories over the Nationalist Army of Chiang Kai-shek, whom Washington supported, Mr. Davies believed communication with Mao was necessary to prevent a combined Soviet and Chinese dominance. Communication, he believed, would preclude the two nations working against American interests in that region and throughout the world.

As political adviser on the staff of Gen. Joseph W. "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell during World War II, Mr. Davies believed Chiang and many of his supporters were corrupt and without the larger support of the country. When Mr. Davies proposed talks with Mao, who he believed was more organized and disciplined, his suggestion conflicted with the vehemently anti-Communist perspectives of the U.S. ambassador to China, Gen. Patrick J. Hurley, and other powerful political figures in Washington.

In many ways, Mr. Davies was an iconoclast, partly stemming from his childhood in China as the son of Baptist missionaries, an upbringing that gave him the critical perspective of an outsider with the broad cultural knowledge of a Chinese native.

Mr. Davies had been in the Foreign Service since 1931--in China since 1933--and worked under distinguished men such as Stilwell and diplomat George F. Kennan. Mr. Davies's last posting, however, was Peru, where he served as counselor and charge d'affaires at the embassy in Lima. Kennan said in an interview that the transfer to Peru was politically motivated.

"He was never one to cultivate favor with people just for ambitious reasons," Kennan said. "He was one of the finest observers of oriental countries that we ever had."

When Dulles fired him, Mr. Davies responded in a statement he had prepared in Peru after being summoned to Washington for what he predicted would be his dismissal. The statement was a rumination on responsibility and the dangers of disagreeing with popular policy.

"The safest thing for a bureaucrat to do in such a situation is to remain silent," he wrote. "Or, a foreign service officer can speak out about his misgivings and suggest alternative policies, knowing that he runs serious political risks in so doing. I spoke out."

After a decade in self-imposed exile in Peru and five years in Washington, Mr. Davies was exonerated in 1969 by the State Department.

John Paton (pronounced Payton) Davies Jr. was born in Szechuan province. For two years, he attended the classless Experimental College at the University of Wisconsin, which emphasized the study of civilization, before spending a year at Yenching University in China and graduating from Columbia University in 1931.

He arrived in China in 1933 and served with Stilwell, at the general's request, from 1942 to 1944. As first secretary at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1945 to 1947, Mr. Davies was the resident China expert, working under chief of mission W. Averell Harriman and his deputy, Kennan.

Mr. Davies spent the next four years in Washington as a member of the State Department's policy-planning staff, of which Kennan was a director, and then as a member of the U.S. High Commission for Germany before being sent to Peru.

After his dismissal from State, Mr. Davies stayed in Peru for a decade, moving out of diplomatic quarters to more ascetic surroundings. With no formal training, he took up furniture design with his wife and ran a design business called Estilo. In 1962, a coffee table and a wood-and-leather chair, both with Asian and Peruvian design influences, each won the American Institute of Interior Designers' International Design Award.

By the time he moved back to Washington in 1964, Mr. Davies had completed his first book, about how the United States became involved in Vietnam, "Foreign and Other Affairs" (1964, W.W. Norton & Co.). He spent the next eight years on his second and final volume, "Dragon by the Tail: American, British, Japanese, and Russian Encounters With China and One Another" (1972, Norton).

He settled in Spain in the 1970s, writing newspaper articles and lecturing. Columnists such as Marquis Childs quoted him for his prescient views on Far East policy.

Childs would write in 1971: "Davies' crime was that he was right. He reported the truth as he saw it."

In 1972, David Halberstam included Mr. Davies's struggle with the State Department in the book "The Best and the Brightest."

In 1948, he received the Medal of Freedom for an event that had occurred four years earlier and was described in Eric Sevareid's book "Not So Wild a Dream." Mr. Davies and Sevareid were passengers on a plane flying from India to China when one of the plane's engines went out. The passengers parachuted out, landing in a jungle amid headhunters. Mr. Davies led them to safety.

A daughter, Megan Davies, said that her father occasionally would receive letters during the last two decades from students who heard about his experience in the Foreign Service and that he responded to them all. "He felt a responsibility to his place in history," she said.

Survivors include his wife of 57 years, former Washington Post society reporter Patricia Grady Davies, of Asheville, N.C.; six daughters, Patricia "Tiki" Davies of Washington, Alexandra "Sasha" Davies of White Plains, N.Y., Susan Davies of Chatham, N.Y., Jennifer Davies of Seattle, Megan Davies of New Orleans and Deborah Davies of London; a son, John Grady Davies, of Baton Rouge, La.; a brother; and 11 grandchildren.

CAPTION: John Paton Davies Jr., who died at 91, was a State Department official.