WHAT CAN be said with any certainty about the People's Republic of China on the basis of a whirlwind 10-day first exposure in the company of Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Joseph A. Califano Jr. and humorist/columnist Art Buchwald?

You can see, as you make your way through schools, universities, laboratories, hospitals, a commune, a psychiatric ward and even a penitentiary along the way, that the Chinese are a disciplined, purposeful, complicated people with terrible problems, enormous talents, impressive artistic skills, a deep reverence for tradition and formality and correct procedure, and a utilitarian approach that puts everything from sex to humor at the service of the State.

You can deduce , on the evidence carefully presented for your inspection, that China's new leadership is deadly earnest in its pursuit of "modernization" and, to that end, normalization of its relations with the United States.

But it is not the purpose of this report to theorize or speculate. Rather, for what it may be worth, I offer only a personal and necessarily constricted perception. I can tell you with certainty only this much out of my own experience:

The People's Republic of China is not yet ready for Joe Califano and Art Buchwald.

I do not mean to suggest that the Chinese authorities were not ready to do business with Califano. A health agreement was signed which will bring valuable American technology to China and perhaps even some valuable Chinese technology - acupuncture, for one notable example - to the United States. Unexpectedly, a memorandum of understanding was reached in the field of education and this should, among other things, help accelerate China's evident efforts to improve and enrich the study of English and of American history in Chinese schools and universities. The HEW secretary gave some useful impetus to American efforts to deal with the tragic plight of Indochinese refugees.

For his part, Buchwald's repurtation as a humorist had preceded him. "You are well known in intellectual circles here," he was pleased to be told by a Chinese official. But the raucous irreverence so evident in the relationship between the cabinet minister and the columnist (they are old friends, of each othe rand of mine, I should probably add) was, at the very least, puzzling to some of our hosts.

The swelling stream of American visitors that began with the pomp and circumstance of Richard Nixon's ground-breaking visit in 1972 has largely consisted of unrelievably serious-minded government officials, earnestly discussing trade and financial arrangements, or negotiating the big and rancorous issue of Taiwan. Visiting scholars and resident diplomats stare soberly at tea leaves, looking sharply for every minuscule twist or turn in China's policy. It is, for the most part, a pretty serious business. By contrast, the Califano-cum-Buchwald swing through China in the last 10 days of June had a certain irrepressible spontaneity to it that the Chinese did not always understand.

Picture, for example, the traditional arrival scene. The presidential 707 had rolled to a stop. There, across the tarmac, is a massive picture of Mao Tse-tung. The press has disembarked and a grey line of Mao-jacketed Chinese officials awaits the appearance of the secretary at the top of the ramp. (See CHINA, Page 4) (CHINA, From Page 1)

It is a moving occasion and Buchwald rises to it. Handing his camera to Mr. Chao, who has introduced himself as our escort for the visit, Buchwald steps back a few paces and utters his first, historic words. "Take my picture in front of Mao," he says. His second historic pronouncement is in the form of a question: "Where is my luggage?"

We drive into town, encountering a growing swarm of bicycle-riding Chinese on their way home from work. In the hotel lobby the Califano press corps, a modest group numbering no more than half a dozen, speculates on the crowd count. "What do you say to 100,000 screaming Chinese?" says one. Buchwald, in a serious tone, offers his own analysis to no one in particular. "I was disappointed," he says, "that there weren't more flowers thrown."

We are assembled for an initial briefing and handed a form to fill out for our press accreditaion. It asks for the usual vital statistics - name, birth date, sex, professional affiliation, home address, and so on. On the back it invites the correspondent to provide "biographical notes." The rest of us briefly jot down schools and universities attended, and one or two items having to do with our careers. Buchwald appears to be writing at some length. I steal a glance at what he is saying. It reads as follows:

"I am the greatest journalist in America - greater even than Robert Novak. Washington doesn't make a decision without reading my column. The president calls me often for advice.

"I was born of very rich parents but when I grew up I turned against my parents and joined the People's Struggle for a better America . . . I like Richard Nixon very much."

I assume this documetn rests somewhere in the files of the Peking bureaucracy.

On the first full day of our visit to Peking, Califano and Buchwald go their spearate ways. Califano begins with a hospital visit, in the course of which he puts on a surgeon's gown and cap to observe a brain-tumor operation in which the patient is anesthesized by acupuncture and fully conscious. While the surgeon goes about his work, and the incision has progressed considerably, Califano is in earnest conversation - with the patient. "Where do you come from? . . . Do you work in a factory? . . ." the secretary inquires.

Later, Califano is on hand while a female patient, also under anesthesia by acupuncture, undergoes a tubular ligation in a family-planning clinic. She, too, is engaged in conversation by Califano and when the operation is concluded she gets up, shakes hands with the secretary, and walks away.

Meanwhile, Buchwald has made his way to the offices of the People's Daily, where he tells the interpreter he wants to know all about the "humor situation in China." The initial response is promising. We are talking with an old hand at the People's Daily who was twice sent out to the countryside for "reeducation" in factories or communes in the dark days of the Cultural Revolution. He has been restored to the job of foreign editor and will soon be coming to Washington as bureau chief. He tells us that a new biweekly called Satire and Humor is now being published by the People's Daily. The Gang of Four, he says, had proclaimed humor as "bad for socialism." But satire, of a sort, is back in good standing and the new magazine is selling over 100,000 copies on newstands.

"Who is the most famous humorist in China?" Buchwald asks, in a modest attempt to discover a Chinese countepart. The closest thing to a Chinese Art Buchwald, it develops, is a cartoonist named Hua Junwei. And Satire and Humor, in both its cartoons and its columns, is largely limited to poking fun, under strict party control, at bureaucratic excesses - to the extent that it is critical of government at all.

"We prefer correct criticism," says one People's Daily editor. "The difference between us and you is that, with complicated matters we criticize internally, not publicly." Buchwald doesn't give up. "People like to laugh," he says. "When you tell them everything is not serious that's good for them." But our Chinese colleague is unyielding. "Laughter is not for laughter's sake," he replies. "It must help the people fight against the negative things in society." Buchwald, still seeking some common ground, is prepared to concede that satire has serious social purpose. "I opposed the Vietnam war for 10 years, and that's what ended it," he declares. "Should I be reeducated?"

The assembled Chinese laugh - uncomprehendingly.

We move on to the Peking zoo for a conversation with Madame Yeh, the leading expert on pandas. Buchwald tells her that Americans are "very upset" that the pandas given to the U.S. government (in exchange for a pair of musk ox) at the time of the famous Nixonvisit have not been able to produce children. "In the United States it is always the fault of the male," he says. "We want to know why he can't do it."

Madame Yeh is gently reassuring. "It is very common," she replies. "When there is a change of environment the male often doesn't come into heat."

Buchwald; "You mean they can't get excited? Has this happened here?"

Madame Yeh launches into a solemn recounting of China's own difficulties with pandas in captivity. She reports that even in their wild state, pandas are not great lovers and that the Peking zoo, afte various experiments, has finally settled on artificial insemination as the best solution. Buchwald's interest can only be described as prurient. "Can you tell me how you do that?" he inquires. Madame Yeh explains that it is done by electro-stimulation after the male has been anesthetized. "You mean you put him to sleep?" Buchwald asks. "He has no fun?"

At this point it occurs to me that it might be helpful if we switched the subject to the othe half of the exchange of gifts. I inquire about the musk ox. Madame Yeh confirms that the female died but adds that the male is "thriving" and receiving many visitors at the zoo.

"Shall I say you want another one?" Buchwald offers generously. "I can say it. Mr. Nixon mad a lot of money from his book. If I write it, he has to give it to you. In exchange, could we get artificial insemination for our panda?"

Madame Yeh is beginning once again to look uneasy. "We have no authority here on exchanges," she replies.

If visitors to China have one complaint in common, it is about the brisk pace at which you are moved around. And if those who have worked with Joe Califano have one complaint, it has to do with the pace at which he moves around. Put the two together, and the net effect was to produce what can only be described as a crowded, not to say back-breaking, program. As we dog-trotted through China's ancient wonders - or raced through the countryside in a motorcade, passing trucks which were at the same time in the process of passing buses, or slicing through swarms of bicycles - I had more than one occasion to recall the offhand remark of a U.S. official that one American tourist a week, on the average, dies in China.

But Califano himself was indefatigabli - and irrepressible. The Great Wall became not just one of the Seven Wonders of the World but a challenge to see who among us, in a pouring rain, would make it to the first way-station perched high on the mountain ridge. He handed out tin medals to those, Chinese escorts as well as American visitors who braved the rain. Buchwald was not among them; neither was I. But Buchwald insisted that he had proceeded in the opposite direction, up a steeper incline to a more distant way-station about which he wove an instant legend: "It's called The Tower in the Clouds," he proclaimed. "Very few foreigners have ever reached it."

The Chinese are proud and purposeful hosts, eager to show you everything they want you to see, even if it is more than you can quite absorb; but they are also much given to formalities. At every stop, introductory greetings are elaborate; tea is served and cool towels are passed around before the tour - of a hsopital, or a school, or a laboratory - can begin. Califano, on the other hand, is not by nature much given to standing on ceremony.

At a provincial sanitarium for workers, an hour and a half's drive from Kunming, the director launched into his introductory remarks with an apology for the fact that the sanitarium was temporarily closed for renovation, as a consequence of which it was empty. "How can you visit a sanitarium with no people in it?" Califano intejected. "Could we please go to a sanitarium that has some people in it?"

The Chinese escorts politely explained that a second sanitarium was on the schedule and Califano was somewhat mollified - but no less in a hurry to move on. The direcor concluded his opening presentation with an explanation of the criteria by which "model workers" gain admission for treatment of chronic diseases. He bowed ceremoniously to Califano, who began his response by saying, "What are the diseases - it's a great pleasure for us all to be here with you - what are the diseases . . ."

By the time we reached Suzhou, an hour's train ride from Shanghai, Califano had regained his diplomatic touch. At a luncheon banquet in his honor, he toasted the hosts lavishly, speaking of "the most beautiful food of our entire trip to China." He spoke of Suzhou as "a city of both tradition and beauty, of canals and bridges, of skilled craftsmen and of world-famous gardens." He was "looking forward particularly," he said, "to visiting the Garden of the Humble Administrator. Ever since I have been a modest secretary of helath, education and welfare, I have heard of this garden. But I never thought I'd stand in the Garden of the Humble Administrator."

"Wait until he finds out what it means," Buchwald whispers. We have just been told the story of the garden at our table by our Chinese escorts. It was built in the 16th century by a powerful local official, Wang Xian, who apparently was the Sen. Talmadge of his time. As one Chinese official explained it, Wang "went often on inspection tours throughout the surrounding area and wherever he went, local people gave him money." He got quite rich but he was also thrown out of office by his superiors. The Chinese name of the garden is translated locally as "the Stupid Politics Garden."

In Shanghai, visiting the city prison, Califano blithely ignored the explicit request of the Chinese prison authorities that the visitors not speak to the convicts. Ushered into the prison infirmary, Califano went from bedside to bedside, cross-examining the inmates on their crimes and sentences, on whether they had been represented by a lawyer or had received a jury trial.

Throughout, Califano was faithful to his anti-smoking campaign, losing no opportunity to allude to it. His Chinese hosts were, if not converted, at least respectful of his concern. "I shall not soon forget the remarkable absence of cigarette smoking in virtually every meeting I attended," Califano said in his formal toast at the final banquet in Shanghai. He noted that one Chinese official had promised him he would not smoke during the visit. "Mr. Chung was a very heavy smoker," Califano said. "He has not had a cigarette since I came to China. If I could have the same impact in North Carolina, President Carter might be reelected." North Carolina? The Chinese in the room looked blank.

They were even more at a loss when Califano rose for a second time at the end of the evening to call upon Buchwald for a few words on behalf of the press. "For 12 long years I have driven him on the Long March to football games," Califano said. "He has never paid for a gallon of gas." This allusion to a carpool arrangement for Redskins football games (in which I share) would probably have baffled most American audiences.

Buchwald's remarks on behalf of the press entourage were not much more comprehensible, I suspect, to the Chinese. "We thank you for your hospitality in China, which we do not get in the United States," Buchwald said. "We wish that the American people and the American bureaucrats could treat us with the kindness that the Chinese people have. The American people have much to learn from China."

The Chinese in the room applauded dutifully. I cannot tell you what was going through their minds. But I could not escape the feeling that they were wondering, to themselves, at the inscrutability of the Americans. CAPTION: Picture 1, Califano and Buchwald at the Great Wall. By Philip Geyelin - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Washington's pandas: objects of Buchwald's concern.