At the end of my first college examination in Chinese 16 years ago, the instructor, Mrs. Mao, brought her 4-year-old daughter Annie into the classroom. She gave Annie a few questions from the exam. The child rattled off the answers in the most beautiful and flawless Peking accent I had ever heard. Having just spent four months with my tongue tied in knots, I contemplated the advantages of a return to the womb.

It was not so bad that Chinese was difficult to learn. That added to the fun and mystery and ego gratification. You could utter dark, monosyllabic oaths incomprehensible to people who annoyed you at cocktail parties. The problem was that Chinese was so easy to forget. Some of my fellow undergraduates argued that they should not actually have to write the hopelessly convoluted Chinese characters, but instead should just be able to recognize some. Because of the complicated tone structure, oral examinations seemed hopeless unless one had the musically trained ear of a young Johann Sebastian Bach.

Years later, my two sons helped me recall my brief encounter with Annie Mao by effortlessly absorbing Chinese with the spongelike brains of the very young.

My older boy thought it hilarious that a slight difference in the pitch of his voice turned the Chinese for "I am 7 years old" into "I am an orange soda pop." That little trick represents a major problem of spoken Chinese. It has never amused me in the least.

I had begun to feel better when I moved to China and discovered how much trouble the Chinese themselves are having with their strange and beautiful tongue. Chinese is perhaps the oldest and most commonly used language in the world, but now it seems close to some sort of nervous breakdown. Twentieth century demands for speed and efficiency have pushed it beyond its capacity. The Chinese are embroiled in a debate over whether to reform the whole system or find some way around it.

"The Confucianists used always to talk about the rectification of names," a longtime foreign resident of Peking told me. "The idea was, if you changed or eliminated the names of things you considered bad, they would go away. They tried that again in 1980 by eliminating references to wallposters from the constitution, hoping they would then go away." Some of my Chinese friends suspect that the language reform springs from the same Orwellian impulse, attacking the roots of ancient, reactionary Chinese culture by abolishing or radically changing the writing system.

Despite its failings, written Chinese has been wedded for more than 3,000 years to the history of this particular nation of men and their development along the Yellow and Yangtze River valleys. The Chinese do not use an alphabet borrowed from a long-dead culture on the other side of the world as Americans do. The beautiful, complex characters were theirs from the beginning and thus are difficult to abandon despite their glaring shortcomings.

Jiang Liande works in the letters-to-the-editor office at the People's Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper. He shakes his head when asked about letters received from young people. Many have dozens of characters written incorrectly. Peasant youngsters I have met in the remote southeastern province of Fujian cannot speak their national language, despite official claims that it has replaced the local dialect in all of the schools. Army clerks told one Chinese newspaper that they had forgotten so many of the characters learned in school that their reports took half the night to complete. Ask any Chinese his name and he will often begin to trace invisible lines on his palm like a deaf-mute, since there is no way to spell words orally in Chinese.

What this does to China's modernization plans becomes apparent after a visit to the Peking Typewriter Shop. Salesman Hua Xishen said he does a brisk business selling Double Dove brand Chinese language typewriters. He has such a backlog of orders that he is only now filling the 1979 requests. It is the most efficient Chinese typewriter ever made, he said. One look reveals why up to now I have never seen such a machine in operation in any Chinese office.

It is an instrument of mental torture. The rigors of learning to type quickly with it would make even the most difficult secretarial course in the United States seem like an afternoon's fling at finger painting. There is no keyboard. A handle moves a clutching device over a tray holding up to 2,300 tiny pieces of type. Each piece is less than one quarter inch square and has a single character engraved on it. The operator used the handle to center the clutching device over the proper character. He than strikes a key which causes the piece of type to be licked up and struck against the carbon ribbon and paper on the carriage roll similar to that on a western typewriter.

One typist had come to the shop to pick up her new machines. She said she could do 60 characters a minute. That seemed impossibly fast to me. How long did she train before she could do that? "Three years," she said.

She was the first Chinese I had ever met who claimed to be capable of operating a typewriter at a business like speed. An operator clutching type at 60 words a minute must have an instinctive mental picture of the location of 2,300 different characters on the tray. Even that incredible feat doesn't solve the whole problem. Sometimes as many as 4,000 or 5,000 characters, far more than one tray can hold, are necessary to write everyday Chinese. The operator must stop to pick one of the less common characters out of an auxiliary tray and drop it into one of the empty spaces left for that purpose on the typewriter's tray.

"Most typists develop very bad eyesight," one official said. "They really have to squint to pick out the right character, and of course they have to read the image on the type when it is reversed and upside down." Only a few Chinese offices have typewriters. They are hopelessly impractical for home use.

I asked Hua, the typewriter store salesman, why China did not switch to a Roman alphabet, as several Chinese reformers have suggested. The Vietnamese, after all, did this long age. "No, that won't work," he said. "People in Shanghai and Canton don't speak like we do in Peking. They wouldn't understand what we wrote."

He is right. It will take just a short language lesson to explain why.

The Roman alphabet, now used by all English-speaking people, grew out of an ancient idea originating in western Asia: writing symbols should tell the reader how a word sounds when spoken. China, however, was cut off from most of the world by the Himalayan Mountains. It enjoyed early success in organizing a working political empire. The Chinese felt superior, often with good reason, to outsiders. They created a much different writing system and stuck to it. Each written word conveyed its meaning, but not necessarily its sound.

Inadvertently, this idea helped keep the Chinese empire together. In a territory so vast, people in different regions spoke different dialects.Some were as different to the ear as English and German. But since the writing system conveyed meaning, not sound, Chinese from different parts of the country could read the same books and write each other letters. Everyone could understand the emperor's written edicts. But if he had tried to speak to his people in the tongue of the capital city, he would not have been understood by most.

Even today, after several decades of modern radio communication which tends to homogenize languages, Chinese still retains eight distinct, major dialects. Their differences in tone, aspiration and vocabulary are buttressed by several centuries of regional hostility, bias and distrust. There is the north China dialect, now the official national language, and the dialects of Jiangsu-Zhejiang including Shanghai, of Hunan, of Jiangxi, of northern Fujian, of southern Fujian, of Guangdong and of the Hakka people of the south. The Chinese try to paper over these ancient, and disruptive, differences with humor: eight different varieties of Polish jokes.

A favorite -- and perhaps prehistoric -- northern Chinese joke: "I don't fear heaven, I don't fear earth. What terrifies me is a southerner speaking northern dialect." Chinese government officials say all schools now use the northern dialect, but foreigners visiting schools south of the Yangtze often find this is not so. One recent British visitor to a Shanghai high school discovered that in every class, except Chinese literature, the teachers were using local dialect. eLocal operas are so difficult to understand that theaters in China routinely project the words on a special screen at the side of the stage so everyone can see the actual characters being sung and spoken.

The Chinese character for "man" looks like a stick figure and is easy to recognize. But in Peking's northern dialect it is pronounced "ren " and in Canton's Guangdong dialect "yan ", both no closer to each other than the English word "man".

Non-Chinese, if they think about it, will realize they also use a nonphonetic language. The figure 87, of Arabic origin, is instantly understood in Washington, Moscow or Peking. Yet the people in each of those three cities have a different way of saying it: eighty-seven, vosyem desyat syem and ba shi qi , respectively.

Students learn Chinese characters by constantly, painfully pounding their many odd twists and turns into the synapses of the brain. When at age 19 I first began to learn the language, my instructors required me to perform like any 7-year-old in China. I had to write each stroke of each character in a certain order. This troublesome emphasis on stroke order has now become key to one of the systems of computerizing the language, creating more doubts in my mind about the chances for modernizing Chinese.

During my recurrent, pitiful attempts to memorize the characters, I tried flash cards, word association and mental telepathy. I tried to distinguish one character from another by visualizing sexual fantasies in the convoluted lines and twirls. I went off for a week in the Sirra Nevada mountains; I thought long days sitting in thin atmosphere of 11,000 feet and staring at flash cards would imprint them forever in memory. o

None of this really worked. My calligraphy, the form and breadth of strokes from which Chinese judge personal worth and character, remains hopeless. In 1976, when a pro-Peking newspaper in Hong Kong printed a short appreciation of Mao Tse-tung I had written, they chose, no doubt out a perverse love for the grotesque, to photocopy and reprint my Chinese signature alongside the article. It was my first warning that those who spoke well of Chairman Mao might be subject to much future ridicule.

While I struggled through three years of Chinese in college, the Vietnamese War created a growing interest in China studies, and a somewhat contradictory boldness on the part of American students who wished to dispense with the more difficult and time-consuming chores of learning a language. Ironically, at that moment in China, a similar revulsion for hard work was overtaking the government-run middle schools. This was part of the great proletarian cultural revolution, which condemned exams as "surprise attacks" by "stinking intellectual teachers" on their poor peasant-worker students. The relatively small number of Americans trying to learn Chinese in U.S. universities probably suffered a bit for their slothfulness. In China, the refusal to get on with the gritty business of learning the national tongue left Chinese education in ruins. It created an enormous literacy gap which has yet to be repaired.

"Half the country is now illiterate or semi-illiterate," an experienced British resident and teacher in Peking said recently.

To try to ease the burden of learning the complex writing system, the Chinese have developed shorthand, simplified versions of several hundred characters. But these have in turn generated more controversy, for they cut the Chinese off from thousands of years of their literature and upset lovers of literary esthetics in a country still full of esthetes.

A letter to the Enlightenment Daily, the national newspaper for intellectuals, complained that the new simplified character for "face", mian looked like a face without nose and eyebrows. A storm of similar protests forced a suspension of many of the simplifications.

Also, the attempts to simplify the characters, or dispense with them in favor of a Roman alphabet, overlooked the problem of tones, without which the language is incomprehensible. This is a hard bill for foreigners to swallow.

One of the advanced students in my summer course at Middlebury College was absolutely tone deaf. He used all the proper vowels and consonants of spoken Chinese, but could not make any of the falling and rising tones that distinguished one word from another. The teachers found it difficult to understand him. They humored him, however, because he was going to specialize in academic work, mostly Qing dynasty documents, which did not require any real fluency in the spoken language.

This tonal barrier works both ways. Sid Rittenberg, one of the best American speakers of Chinese I know, said he once tried to explain to a Chinese child that the sounds of two words, "horse" and "scold", were the same sound ma , with different tones. "He refused to believe it," said Rittenberg, who has lived in China since 1946. "To him, there was nothing similar about the words at all, as if we were discussing another dimension. It was only after many other examples that he seemed to begin to see what I meant."

The Chinese seem resigned to the discomforts of their own language. Despite foreign exasperation with it, and modern pressures upon it, the Chinese seem unlikely to change it very quickly. To many Chinese, particularly the 800 million who live in rural villages, the outside modern world is largely irrelevant, just as foreigners speaking Chinese is to them an amusing, but highly improbably event.

A British diplomat who had taken honors in Oriental languages at Cambridge and lived in Peking for years was driving toward Tianjin when he took a wrong turn. He stopped to ask dircections in his flawless northern accent from a couple of peasants standing at the roadside.

"Is this the road to Tianjin?"

"Eh? What did you say?"

"Which way to Tianjin?"

"Sorry, we don't understand foreign languages."


"Beg your pardon, we only speak Chinese."

The diplomat gave up in disgust and started his car. Just before he pulled away, he heard one peasant say to the other: "Wasn't that strange? I could have sworn that foreigner was asking directions to Tianjin."