OFALL THE IMAGES we in American have had of the People's Republic of China, surely the most absurd must be Dean Rusk's fantasy of "a billion Chinese armed with nuclear weapons." Soon there will be a billion of them, but what strikes a visitor is not suspicion or bellicosity but curiosity and friendliness.

Westerners gather crowds simply by appearing on the streets. People gape in through the bus door or when you enter a store. If you are lucky enough to have Chinese speakers among your group, conversation will quickly flow. And if you brought along an instant picture camera and use it to photograph, say, mother and child, you will be a sensation and she will have a treasure.

Right now, at least, we American visitors are "foreign friends," and this was true before the announcement that "normalization" of relations between Washington and Peking was about to occur. It's a fascinating moment in history to go see for yourself.

What follows are some impressions my wife and I brought home from a recent visit to China as part of a 20-person group from Washington's China Round Table.

THE PEOPLES Liberation Army is much in evidence, but these men in unpressed green uniforms are seen not on parade grounds or marching through the streets but engaged in public works or civic action programs-or even with family and friends taking snapshots at the same tourist spots the foreigner visits. Officers may be distinguished from enlisted men by the fact that their jackets have four pockets, enlisted men only the upper two.

THE BULK of China's people live in the eastern part of the country, and it is that area most foreigners see. Travelling by plane and train from Canton to Kweilin, Changsha, Shanghai and Peking, we never seemed to be out of sight of human beings. The lands is crowded, there is little privacy. The only glimpse of boy-meets-girl came on a late evening stroll down Shanghai's Nanking Road to the Bund at the river front: young couples, hand in hand in some cases, happily chatting in the relative privacy of a public street away from parents.

Nothing gives you the impression of sheer numbers like the bicycles, the urban Chinese's pride of personal transportation. They seem to flow in a mostly silent tide, seldom staying to their side of the bike lane markings on all the wider streets and highways. It simply is easier peddling to move towards the center and to linger there until the last possible instant when the honking horns of truck and bus drivers finally herald the menace of a collision.

Like Henry Ford's Model, T, bikes are mostly painted balck. Each has a registration number. In crowded city areas there are sidewalk pay-parking zones.Newers models have an ingenious built-in-lock, worked by a key just beneath the seat that sends a loop through the spokes and around the tire.

At night the bicycle scene is eerie, for in all of the China we saw we never found a single bike with a headlight of any sort. Trucks and buses use dims and only flash their brights at the last possible moment, suddenly illuminating hundreds of the bikes silently flowing in the street.

SINCE WE ALL have heard that there are no cats, dogs, birds or files left in China we kept count. Report: in 17 days we spotted 10 dogs, three cat, five files and eight magpies.

China's great race is between growing population and the available domestic food supply. Animal eradication including the birds, relates to protecting available food for humans. Pets are an unaffordable luxury.

We learned a new word in China - "gardenize." We were busing along a country road outside Changsha en route to see an agricultural commune when someone spotted a mass of humanity slowly eating away at a hillside like the proverbial ants. Men and women, using largely spade, hoe and woven basket, were "gardenizing," that is, cutting and filling, leveling off hilltops and filling in valleys to create new terraced land on which to grow food.

Much of China's arable land is irrigated, and much of that work is done by hand, although increasing electrification has made pumps rather common. Yet the most ubiquitous scene remains this: Standing on the edge of an irrigation ditch, a man dips a bucket nailed to a pole and with it fills two buckets brought by a woman; she balances them at either end of a bamboo shoulders pole and, with a gait that is half bounce, she totes the water into the field; she puts down her buckets, takes a dipper fastened to the end of a stick and either waters plant by plant or else throws a spray across several plants. And then it is repeated over and over and over again.

Tree planting is everywhere. In the midst of a smoky complex that composed a steel mill in Peking, a group of women were busy planting 10- or 12-foot evergreens, each with a big ball of wrapped earth. Along roads, trees often are planted in two or even three rows, some of them only a feet or two tall. And on barren hill after barren hill what must be millions of saplings now spring up in row after row. Tree farming for lumber or for fuel thus is rapidely spreading.

A city planner in Changsha told us that the national rule is to try to use as little farm land as possible in developing urban areas. Every bit counts.

Rows of cabbages, beans of other crops are tucked into the foot or so of space between the road, the trees lining the road and the irrigation ditch. Tiny plots of the peasants-the only exception to collectivized agriculture-similarly are tucked into bits and pieces of space about houses and outbuildings. In all of China there seems to be nothing we would call ground cover: no grass, no weeds, no flowers planted in the earth, though those who live in the four, five- or six-story walkup apartments often crowd their tiny balconies with flowers in pots, as well as using the areas as storage space. Some apartments without such balconies use wire and boards to create a platform attached to window sills.

IF YOU HAVE traveled in the Soviet Union you have noted the surly attitude of store clerks toward customers. In China it's exactly the opposite; clerks put themselves out to be of help. Both of the communist giants make a big thing of public parks for the workers. There is at least one difference: to enter such a park in China one has to pay a small fee; in the Soviet Union it's free.

In late fall Chinese parks were featuring a form of chrysanthemum cultivation we'd never before seen: from a single stem a plant is drawn through a wire frame to form a sunburst of colored petals. Some frames are in the form of Chinese characters, so chrysanthemums can join in that communist favorite, sloganeering. Current slogans center on economic goals for the years 1985 and 2000.

CHINA HAS BIG environmental problems. Each city we visited seemed to have a cover of industrial haze through which the sun daily had to fight its way. Peking's treasure, the Forbidden City with its imperial yellow tile roofs, strikes one as being as imperiled as Venice. The sheen of the tiles has been largely lost. Belching chimneys, as well as dust stirred by winds off the Gobi Desert to the north-west, are to blame. No one could tell us what chemical action is at work on the tiles.

Part of the urban haze comes from houses. Most homes, the one-story variety, are of either red brick or, in some areas, a form of adobe resembling what we have in America's Southwest. The cutting of bricks from clay can be seen most everywhere in the countryside, where primitive kilns are scattered about. The product is not a very hard brick.

For the most part there are no smokestacks or chimneys in homes. Most people cook with dried rice stalks, bits of wood or coal pressed from coal dust into small circular lumps. Kitchen stoves are made of cement of hardened earth, with a hole or two in the top into which fit huge woks. Smoke filters out between the roof tiles, which are far from airtight, since they are laid on a criss-cross of wooden beams. At first sight from the outside, it looks like the house is a fire.

The "typical" worker's apartment shown to foreigners in a walkup, or the "typical" home in a commune, most certainly are a lot better and more spacious than the average. Yet we found one 10-year-old girl who had to sleep on a closet floor. The apartments we were shown had piped gas for cooking, either squat or western toilets and heat only from cooking. In the commune, floors usually were simply packed earth.

Everywhere in China one sees a single, medium-wattage clear light bulb hanging from a ceiling cord or, increasingly in newer buildings, a single, frosted neon tube per room. The suggestion that there must be some rule decreeing one light per room is indignantly denied.

WHEN LEONARD WOODCOCK, the former United Auto Workers union president who is out top diplomat in China, first visited a factory, he pointed to a piece of machinery without safety devices and recalled that some 30 years earlier he had led a strike over just such a lack.

There are no strikes in Communist China. But visits to a tire factory in Kweilin, the massive docks of Shanghai and The Capital Iron and Steel works in Peking confirm the rudimentary nature of much of the nation's industry, including the lack of safety devices. When we were told that hard hats on the dock and in the mill were made of woven willow we didn't believe it-until we went to a department store and bought one.

There certainly is a lot of underemployment in China. Everywhere, factory, field, along the roads, a lot of people are simply standing around while others work, or they take turns working. Like all developing countries, China is labor intensive; that is, jobs are designed as far as possible not just for output but to put to work the maximum number of people. Handicrafts, where a bonus payment system most likley prevails, alone appeared to be the one place with a steady, though hardly hectic, rhythm of work.

Managers at the tire factory were asked what were their problems. They listed raising worker efficiency, obtaining sufficient chemicals and the need for newer equipment "as in the West." Others at the plant told us that in the past year this factory complex had been shut down for a total of about 2 1/2 months because of recurrent interruptions to both chemical supplies and electricity.

The tire factory was distance from the city. It was explained, therefore, that if a man working at the plant had a girl in town it could be possible for them to work together-if he could persuade a girl worker at the factory to swap jobs with the town girl, assuming the skills involved were equal and the bureaucratic rules could be met. No one could venture how often this actually occurred, however.

REMNANTS OF the "imperialists"-the white men and the Japanese who despoiled the old China-are still quite visible. In Canton there is an island at the edge of the Pearl River known as the Shameen (or Shamien), which for decades are partly the British and partly the French "concession." Wandering through its streets, you can still find the former Anglican church in the old British sector and the Catholic church in the French. What must have been the British barracks now houses who-knows-how-many families. The central green or common where the troops once paraded now is full of palm trees, with a paved area used by youngsters for school exercises and marching.

In Shanghai scores of the big houses of the foreigners in the once French Concession and International Settlement have become either offices, handicraft factories or rabbit-warren apartments. What once were Avenue Edward VII and Avenue Joffre have new names and a different bustle, while the massive stone piles along the Bund where the foreigners ruled and ran so much of China's business now are communist government offices. The only foreign consulate in Shanghai today is Japan's.

Peking, unlike the cities of southern China, is built of gray brick with gray tile roofs, especially the old homes, which huddle around a courtyard behind a wall. We were told that the capital banned three-wheeled pedicabs and two-wheel carts, both vehicles seen everywhere else and dependant on straining human muscles. Instead one sees flatbed wagons powered by horse, a donkey or a combination, driven by brown-skinned men from the northern provinces, or miniature three-wheel pickup trucks.

Peking's subway, now running to 17 stations in a single and almost straight east-west line of about 20 miles, is comfortable and speedy. At midday, four-car trains with 60 seats each and lots of space for standees ride well, and stations are adorned with classical prints rather than advertisements. The subway, like all public transportation, is subsidized, and there are no public battles over which jurisdiction will pay what share of the deficit, as with Washington's Metro.

The plan is to add a loop around the old city, using cut-and-fill along the new streets that have replaced the ancient city wall. The subway has a flat fare while bus rates depend on the distance traveled; both are cheap. There are no private cars, of course, and taxis, though also inexpensive to a foreigner, seem to be the preserve of visitors and Chinese officialdom.

FOREIGN DIPLOMATS in Peking generally believe that most northern Chinese cities have some sort of civil defense tunnel system, the result of Mao's dictum to "dig deep and store grain" plus fears of attack by the Soviet Union.

We visited the Peking shelter under Da Shi'h Street, a mixed living and shops area a few blocks from Mao's Memorial Hall toward the south end of Tienanmin square. We entered through an electrically operated trapdoor behind a counter in tailor shop, descended 38 steps and walked through several hundred yards of barrel-vaulted corridors, 5 feet wide and perhaps 7 feet high. We were shown numerous steel doors, sanitary, feeding and first aid preparations but not stores of food. The well thermometers all registered 57 degrees Fahrenheit.

We ended up around a table sipping tea while an official with a long pointer used a series of lights on a large display to show the extent of this multiple-entrance honeycomb, begun, he said, in late 1969 after Soviet-Chinese borderr clashes. It left one with the thought that while the existence of such tunnels may have a deterrent value, vis-a-vis Moscow, actual use most likely would produce disastrous panic.

THE TREES along city streets are not someone else's responsibility, but yours. This is known as "depending on the masses," a Maoist dictum. The government provides the sapling for in front of your home but you must plant it and water it. If it dies, you have to pay for the replacement.

OF ALL THE HARD LABOR we saw in China the hardest surely must be that of the men and women who pole or pull their boats upstream. Visitors go down the beautiful Li River as it meanders among the incredibele limestone rock formations of Kweilin. But the real river people, the families that live on boats moving much of China's traffic, are lean of frame and callused of hand and foot. In today's China no one humans carries another, as in a rickshaw, but as for generations past humans trudge the edges of the rivers, ofter barefooted and bent nearly horizontal.

WE VISITED not the well-known Peking University but Tsing Hua University, a polytechnical school at the edge of the capital. We were told the school already has among its faculty of 2,8000 for 7,000 students five visiting Americans teaching computer science and physics. The plan is to send nine of its students, along with groups from other schools making a total of 50, to the United States, and the first of these arrived last week. By next September the total is supposed to soar to 500.This is part of the new Chinese effort to recreate an elite leadership, an approach denigrated during the egalitarian peirod of the so-called "Gang of Four." That "gang," so the university's spokeswoman told us, declared that "the more knowledge you have, the more reactionary you are."

After listening to a litany of ills blamed on the "gang," we finally asked: "How could four people do so much harm? Did no one resist?" The reply was that the four had "followers: who "imposed" their policies. It made one recall the years of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. CAPTION: Picture 1, Westerners gather crowds simply by appearing on the streets. Photos by Gordon N. Converse-The Christian Science Monitor; Picture 2, Factory worker waters his garden at dawn; Picture 3, Bicycles are the urban Chinese's pride of personal transportation. Picture 4, Middle school science student in Shanghai; machine tool factory worker in Wuhan.