AS THE RISING SUN begins to filter through long, straignt rows of poplar trees that border the roads in Dahe Commune, bells clang around the village, calling its residents out o work in the fields. Scores of villagers saunter out their front gates and head for the outskirts of town. They carry hoes, shovels, and rakes. Some carry insecticide sprayers and wear masks. Some, in pairs, lean their shoulders heavily into leather harnesses, hauling stout wooden carts piled high with manure. They will work at leat eight hours -- twice as much at harvest time -- under the intense summer sun. Most of them are yount, in their 20s. And almost all of them are women.

"Women in Dahe Commune now perform 80 percent of all field labor," says Wang Shufang, head of Dahe Commune's Women's Federation. Dahe, where I lived for the first six months of this year, it typical of many north Chinese communes. Agricultural yields have risen. Villagers are building small industrial and handicraft workshops, and are buying more agricultural machinery.

But, increasingly, women have been left behind to labor in the fields. In the commune's richest production team, they do virtually all of the field work. And they are proud of their new role.

"Women in China are now equal to men in every way," says Yang Hueiyu, 38, and just about everyone else asked. Yang heads the village women's federation in Jiacun, a small, relatively poor hamlet in the commune. Her ivory-white skin and soft, uncalloused hands give her away as a village cadre (party functionary) who rarely performs manual labor. As head of the women's federation, she must look after all the women in the village -- to see that they are treated fairly, they they don't have too many babies, and that they turn up regularly for work. There is no irony in Yang's voice when she says, in one breath, that women are equal and, in the next, that they now perform almost all the menial tasks in the village while men do other work. It takes a suspicious American to wonder why.

"If women are equal to men," I ask with innocence on my face, "why do you still need a women's federation?" The question, which Yang has never considered, puzzles her, and she decides to wait until after lunch before aswering.

Unlike their American counterparts, the women who lead China's women's movement do not believe that men oppress them. They attribute their burdens, instead, to the unfairness of a "feudal" society that vanished over 30 years ago. They proudly submit to the leadership of the Communist Party, a heavily male-dominated organization, in which a high position for a woman is nearly always proff that the is married to one of Peking's power magnates. Some observers, more suspicious than I, have suggested that the Communist Party's drive to elevate the status of women is nothing more that a well disguised and highly successful ploy to exploit women for the labor.

Many Chinese women apparently felt the same way, until a recent change in the way they were paid for their work. "When we were paid according to a system of labor guides," explains Yang, "we could never earn as much as the men because we always were assigned to a lower grade even if our work was better. Many women felt discouraged form working hard. Now we are paid according to how much we actually do and women work very hard." Local officials claim the new policy promotes sexual equality as an added bonus to its basic intent of strengthening material incentives. Unfortunately, everyone here seems to have overlooked the fact that men and women no longer do the same work, so men still come out the bigger bread winners.

Yang also claims that liberated men help with the housework, but liberated men seem to be few in this windswept rural community. As one man bluntly put it, "Women now are more tired than men. After working all day in the fields, they still have to cook and keep house." In the spring, villagers doff their winter clothes, soak them, and spend hours beating them with sticks till they are clean -- the women villagers do, that is. Although I ate dinner in several homes in the village, the women of these houses, who cooked the meals, never once sat down to join us.

"In the old society, women bound theire feet and were not allowed out of the house," Yang tells me. Foot binding began centuries ago as a sexual fetish in 'China. Parents wrapped bandages tightly around the feet of their infant daughters in order to stunt growth and keep their feet dainty and alluring. Many old women in the village still have "little feet" which prevents them from doing anything but light household work. A women with large feet was considered an ugly clod, difficult to marry off, and people still find it funny to joke about the new generation of duck-footed Amazons.

But with bigger feet, they can work, and this gives women some new clout. Sociologists have discovered that in other parts of China, the price of brides -- the value of gifts given to the bride's parents -- has gone up. Women are worth more than before and parents don't like to give them up so quickly. New economic power also makes divorce a feasible way to get out of a bad marriage (alternative was suicide), although divorce is still rare and strongly discouraged.

Men, too, seem to sense that something has changed. They constantly joke with each other about having a "wife who manages them strictly," and euphemistically poke fun at their wives by using the bureaucratic mumbojumbo with which all officials pepper their daily speech. One friend of mine complains, "I have to file a 'report asking for administrative clarification' with my wife each time I smoke a cigarette." Men constantly ribbed me that I "feared my wife," and no one could conceal vey well their curiosity about what they see as the litmus test of marital relations: who washes the clothes. Chinese men don't like to wash clothes in public while their wives are around. No one wants to lose face and admit openly that they have succumbed to the modern disease of wife fearing.

Some women manage the family budget, speak agressively, and assert themselves with no sign of self-consciousness. But social habits changed slowly. He Caijie is typical of many women whose homes I visited.

As I and my assistant from the village walk through the arched brick gate, with its heavy metal doors open for the day, we call to see who is home. He Caijie, 52, runs out, bowing slightly and motioning us indoors. Her head is covered with a black kerchief. Her black padded jacket and trousers of homespun cotten make her look much fatter than she actually is. Her eyes, moving constantly, do not meet ours.

A few trees, soon to be felled for lumber, stud the hard, dirt-covered courtyard. In the far corner, a latrine empties into a pig sty where a 3-month-old pig has yet to finish his morning slops. An old, crudely fashioned wooden spinning wheel lies discarded next to the wall, and the dirt bears fresh broom marks -- He Caijie's preparation for her unuaul guests.

Hens scurry away as we approach the door and lift our feet over a 6-inch high sill onto the tamped earth floor inside. Built with sun-dried mud bricks, the house stands on a foundation of stone quarried in the nearby mountains. After our eyes adjust to the gloominess, we seat ourselves around a wooden table and He Caijie pours tea. I try politely to refuse the cigarettes and hard candies thrust under my nose. Acrid smoke from an unvented coal stove smarts in my eyes, but the stove provides little protection from the bitter cold outside. "Who heads the household here?" I begin.

"He does. He's away. I don't know anything about anything."

"He" is what many women call their husbands. Some urbanities in China refer to their husband or wife as "lover," but this modern term has yet to penetrate most households in Dahe. If not "he," then a women might call her husband "the man," or a more common "the father of my children." Women in Dahe keep a verbal distance from the men who share their beds.

"What do you do?" I ask.

"Me? I don't do anything. I can't do anything. I have no skills at all."

"Well, how many days did you work last year?"

"About 300."

"But what did you do?"

"Nothing. I just farmed."

After 30 years of propagands glorifying socialist labor, passants -- the ones who must, in a common expression, "day in and day out work with the mud and earth" -- have apparently not yet gotten the official message that farming is no longer supposed to be a low-class occupation, that men are gradually abandoning and letting their women take over.

"Why are there so few men working in the fields?" I asked Yang Hueiyu.

"Oh, some are cadres, or work in local factories. Many of them drive tractors or animal carts, and some work at the stone quarry."

I did not see a woman drive a tractor or a horse cart during my whole stay in China, although I was told that there are women tractor drivers.

Yu Aiyum, party secretary of Zhifangtou production brigade, admitted, "We don't like to train young women for skilled jobs because when they marry they usually leave the village and take the skills with them. It is not worth it to us."

Except for an occasional accountant, there are virtually no women serving as cadres in the commune except for those in charge of "women's work." And even though women perform most of the agricultural labor, which is the principal responsibility of production teams, not one of the 96 production teams in the commune is headed by a woman.

After lunch, Yang Hueiyu came back with her answer. Realizing she was stepping a bit beyond the official line from the pages of People's Daily, she measured her words carefully. "In my opinion, women are not truly liberated. There is too much housework for them still to do. They must make clothing, cook, wash clothing, and tend to children. And they must do this in addition to working in the fields. Mechanization will further liberate women. In the future there will be a cafeteria where everyone will eat, so it won't be necessary for women to cook in the home."

So Yang admits that sexual inequality may have something to do with China's poorly developed economy, not simply its "feudal" past. And after I pushed the Yang a little further, she hesitated and admitted that, well, maybe after all even men have something to do with it.