OVER THE CENTURIES, China has often been the subject of western fantasy. In their own way, a number of scholars, journalists and other travelers have perpetuated this tradition in recent years, rushing to rediscover the country after its long period of isolation. Some of these visitors, justifiably impressed by the Communists' achievements in eliminating the exploitative aspects of pre-1949 mandarin society, propagated the view that the revolution, after its initial successes, had continued to "serve the people" and that China was "the wave of the future" -- a compelling alternative to the disorder and materialism of western society.

Human rights were not at issue, they argued, because such western concepts were inapplicable to China. In the past year, however, the Chinese have begun to speak for themselves, and they are conveying a different picture. In the view of many of its own people, China is a backward and repressive nation.

"China is Asia's Gulag Archipelago," an elderly Chinese scholar said to me shortly after I had arrived in China last spring. "I was in Germany right after the Second World War, and I saw the horrors of Buchenwald and other concentration camps. In a way -- in its destruction of the human spirit these past two decades -- China has been even worse."

Paradoxically, the utopia is now America. The traditional Chinese sense of moral superiority has given way, it seems, to an equally unhealthy lack of self-esteem.

"Compared to you, we Chinese are really stupid," a train conductor said, bemoaning the "fact" that Americans learned faster from books than Chinese did. Americans in China no longer need defensively recite the strengths of their society; rather, they find themselves in the curious position of having to point out that America, too, has faults.

Obviously, the time is right for visiting China. Yet, despite the country's sudden new wave of cordiality, the average traveler, who must join a package-tour group to get there, remains very much isolated from the people.

As the Ford Foundation's China specialist -- and a Chinese interpreter under contract to the State Department -- I had first visited the country in 1975, but that trip had yielded little in the way of information about ordinary Chinese citizens. Visits to Potemkin-village communes, model factories and new housing developments -- hardly tourist attractions in other countries -- were orchestrated and meaningless, and were accompanied by a barrage of official propaganda about the success of the socialist revolution, the sanctity of the principle of "self-reliance" and the evil influence of everything foreign.

Today, traveling in China can be strikingly different. Provided that their Chinese is adequate, travelers who manage to sidestep the government travel agency can set out on their own -- by "hard class" train, boat and bus -- to profit from China's new openness and the almost insatiable desire of the Chinese for conversation. Except for some foreigners studying in China, few visitors have had the opportunity or the inclination to travel in this way, so when an Australian friend and I received a personal invitation from a diplomat in Peking -- one of the few ways individual travelers can enter the country -- we decided to undertake such a trip.

The journey, lasting nearly two months, covering 7,000 miles and passing through a number of areas only recently opened to foreign travelers, took us from Canton, in the south, to Peking and Tianjin (Tientsin), in the northeast, and then southwest through Sichuan (Szechwan) to the remote province of Yunnan, east down the Yangtse River to Shanhai and, finally, to the scenic southern city of Guilin (Kweilin).

In Peking, western culture is flourishing these days. Mao Tse-tung had hoped in his lifetime to transform China from a backward and bureaucratic society victimized by a century of imperialism into a new, egalitarian state, a unique Chinese Communist culture, and in 1949 he began to eradicate "decadent" western influences. The movement to destroy every vestige of "bourgeois" culture, including movies and music, reached its xenophobic peak, however, only during the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 until the overthrow of the Gang of Four.

Right up till then, Chinese university students, when their foreign roommates played Beethoven and other western composers, would invariably parrot the party line by criticizing the recordings as "awful bourgeois music." Now, if they're lucky enough to be in work units that have access to TV, young Chinese sit listening and watching as the Boston Symphony and other orchestras play to audiences of elite Shanghai and Peking bureaucrats. (Music lovers who attend such events pay -- if they are not among the favored few -- the black-market price of up to $8, or a little less than the average weekly wage, for a ticket that originally cost 25 cents.)

The Chinese also get a daily radio dose of selections from, say, "Swan Lake" and "The Sound of Music," along with narrations of the plots, as well as a perplexingly diverse assortment of old country-and -western hits -- including one, in this family-oriented country, that has the refrain "I don't need no man." Other forms of entertainment, too, are much in evidence.

Movie houses running old foreign films -- a recent one was Olivier's "Hamlet" -- are packed night and day. University students who in their philosophy classes hotly debate the pros and cons of Chairman Mao surreptitiously devour Erica Jong's novels and any others they can lay their hands on -- often to the embarrassment of their language teachers from abroad, who never thought they would be interpreting such works in this puritanical stronghold. And people everywhere are learning the waltz and the foxtrot.

Despite all the excitement surrounding all current cultural upsurge, not everyone in Peking is happy with the course of events. As recent police crackdowns have so painfully shown -- freedom-of-speech demonstrators dragged off to jail and Chinese taken away from international dances for questioning, presumably to discourage too intimate a relationship with foreigners -- the Chinese political pendulum swings both ways.

Even before the arrests began, signs of reaction were evident in newspaper editorials and radio commentaries. "We want no part of capitalist democracy," a typical editorial insisted. "We want to combine democracy with the dictatorship of the proletariat."

In recent months, a number of American lawyers have been invited to China to advise Chinese officials on matters relating to foreign investments in joint business ventures, and when they remark that this attitude bodes ill for the future the response from their hosts is merely a polite nod. Obviously, the struggle among the leadership over the latest "correct line" is far from resolved.

At the other end of the spectrum are those who think things haven't gone far enough. One young artist, whose works seemed suspiciously derivative of Van Gogh in some cases and of American abstractionists in others but who insisted they were inspired only by his many years in labor camps, complained that he and fellow artists elsewhere in China were still not allowed to exhibit their paintings openly (though one Sunday he did put some of his paintings up on "democracy wall," the scene of much of the past year's ferment) and were constantly harassed by the secret police. When asked what he intended to do about the situation, he replied glibly, aping the serious dissidents in the Soviet Union, "I'll send my paintings abroad, get arrested and hope the international community will take up my case."

Victims of the Anti-Rightest Campaign, in the late 1950s, and of the subsequent Cultural Revolution generally express themselves in a more Chinese way, however -- most notably by pasting laboriously written posters on walls in Peking and in virtually every other city in the land. These posters include lurid accounts of torture and sexual abuse during the late 1960s, demands for the punishment of individuals considered responsible -- they are often named -- and pleas for the redress of injustices involving, for example, workers who have lost jobs or possessions, and elderly people forced to become beggars.

(Some of the commentary is in a lighter vein. A drawing of Chairman Mao's huge mausoleum was pasted on "democracy wall" one morning with the caption "The Rest of Us Have Housing Problems.")

Still, the wall posters may not suggest the true extent of people's dismay; random conversations I had gave me the impression that almost everyone has a horrifying personal tale to tell.

My Australian friend and I visited a prominent 80-year-old doctor whose home and belongings had been summarily confiscated in 1966 despite his years of service to the state. He and his son's family of six had then been forced to move into three unimaginably squalid, cramped and ill-heated rooms with ceilings of paper, and with no running water and no toilet -- a far cry from the model housing project for workers (which itself was pretty basic) that I had been shown on my previous visit.

"No place for a houseparty," he said, with a wry grin, as he took us down a muddy lane that led to his quarters. "They say the several medical books I wrote will soon be rehabilitated and my belongings returned, yet that seldom happens. In some instances, the government has offered reimbursements, but it has given only a tiny fraction of the value of the confiscated goods. In any case, my home, just across the street, is occupied and will never be returned. Population pressures are just too great."

Expressing contempt for the government propaganda that blamed the Gang of Four for the sad state of present-day China, the doctor continued, "The current leaders are trying to change things now, but they're the ones who brought it all on. Changing the situation will be very hard and very slow. As the proverb goes, 'When the snow thaws, the road is muddy.'"

The next evening, we had dinner at the home of a middle-aged couple, both of whom are fairly high-level members if the Communist Party. "Though we were innocent of any crime, we both spent four years in prison," the wife said, almost nonchalantly. I had heard elsewhere that their son, who had publicly denounced them, had recently committed suicide.

Indeed, I heard rumors throughout my journey -- rumors being a major source of information in China, with its controlled press -- to the effect that there have been a number of suicides lately among young Chinese; many of them are reported to be bewildered by the dramatic political turnabout and overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and despair.

In view of these circumstances, a number of student-age Chinese are known to be looking for an opportunity to leave the country, and that perhaps explains why, the evening after an official announcement last winter that Chinese could marry foreigners, a group of young Chinese women at Peking University took the highly unusual step of hanging out in front of a men's dormitory where several foreign students lived.

Moreover, those Chinese who were recruited for the universities from the ranks of "workers, peasants and soldiers" under a now discredited program fostered by Mao must also find the current situation unsettling. Brought up to believe that they would be the vanguard in the triumph of ideology over "decadent" culture, they are now being shunted aside, in the interests of modernization, to make room for those with expertise.

One day, on a short side trip to Tianjin, a port city about 60 miles southeast of Peking, I asked a young friend how so many children could have been induced to denounce their parents. "Easy," he replied. "They were made to believe that their lives would have been a lot more comfortable if their parents had been better people -- of a different class -- before liberation. So out of fustration they blamed their parents for all their troubles."

Another friend in Tianjin complained, "I've been buffeted by this system for so long now -- one movement after another since the early fifties -- that my mind is no longer functioning properly. I doubt if I'll ever again be capable of thinking clearly."

While there is little question that large numbers of Chinese have been numbed by years of propaganda, there is also evidence that some people have maintained a clear-headed view of events.

"Thirty years ago, most students were enthusiastic about the Communists," one man said. "But now, after being told for so long that socialism is superior, these same people look around and see nothing at all to indicate its superiority. No wonder young people today are cynical. No wonder some are suggesting that even the Guomindang (Kuomintang) might have been better. One thing is certain -- they want a change."

Walking one day in the drab rural outskirts of Peking, I knocked at the door of a small cottage to ask directions. An elderly, almost toothless man answered, and he invited me in for what turned out to be a two-hour conversation. A scientist who had returned from America after World War II with a Ph.D. in mathematics, he had hoped to serve the Communist cause by helping to rebuild China. Instead, after a decade of work, he was labeled a rightist and sentenced to 20 years at hard labor, from which he had only recently been released.

"Since I was considered a 'big rightist,' I haven't yet got my rehabilitation certificate, as some 'small rightists' have," he told me. "My 'crimes' were twofold: praising American science, and stressing how important academic freedom is to scientific inquiry. Now these 'crimes' seem to be the correct line." He chuckled, and added, "Though who knows for how long?"

If more people had stood firm, as he had, I asked, would the same thing have happened?

"It wouldn't have mattered," he replied. "Millions did stand firm, but we were still broken." He paused to reflect, and then, referring to the brief period in 1957 when Mao solicited criticism of the party from the intellectual elite, went on, "But if we hadn't done what we did then, there would be no liberalization now. The Hundred Flowers Movement let inexorably to the Cultural Revolution and to the present reaction against that madness."

Didn't that provide some consolation?

"No," he said listlessly. "It's too late for us. Two generations have been lost -- my children, too, have suffered. Because of my 'crimes,' they were denied an education. One is a bus driver, and the other works in a factory.

As I was leaving, I noticed that my host had a portrait of Mao hanging on the wall, and I asked him why.

"My wife still thinks it's the safest thing to do," he said. "If I had my way, I'd tear that picture to shreds."

The last leg of our trip took us to Guilin, a tourist-invaded town in the southern province of Guangxi Zhuang (Kwangsi Chuang). The area is noted for its extraordinary landscapes -- towering, weirdly shaped rock formations jutting out of the wide plains through which flow the green, still fairly clear waters of the River Li. Except for a number of small fishing boats, the river traffic seems to consist primarily of tourist barges, which are dragged downstream 50 miles or so by tug-like tenders for the benefit of sightseers.

In racially class-conscious China, non-Chinese foreign guests pay $25 for the six-hour trip to Yangshuo. Overseas Chinese, and the even more shabbily received Hong Kong and Macao brethern, are in this instance lumped together in lesser luxury, and pay slightly less than half that amount. The Chinese masses, the worst-treated people in China, travel under much more crowded and austere circumstances, at a cost of about $2.50. It took four visits to the ramshackle offices ot the city's Revolutionary Committee -- and some mock histrionics on my part about the apparently still prevailing influence of the Gang of Four -- before the authorities would permit me to go down the river with the Chinese.

On the boat, I talked with a newly married couple -- the husband a computer specialist, the wife a doctor -- enjoying a one-week honeymoon trip. The wife asked me, "Having traveled extensively around the country, what do you consider China's biggest problem to be?"

The easiest, and not necessarily the wrong, response would have been simply, "Its population, its poverty and its unfulfilled promises." But another response seemed more appropriate at the time. However appealing the government's new line compared to the old, I replied, China remains a dictatorship, where most people are trained not to question but to repeat the party line. The government wants to modernize the country but is still unwilling to let the people think creatively and express themselves freely. Despite much publicity to the contrary, little that is fundamental to the system has changed, I continued, and there is really nothing to prevent past abuses from recurring -- perhaps with Stalinist vengeance, if those in power attempt to suppress the increasingly widespread discontent and resentment.

"Many of us would agree with your assessment wholeheartedly," the husband told me, with a note of optimism. "China's salvation lies with the younger generation. If their minds can be opened -- and to that end interaction with the West is important -- our society, too, might become a more open one."