A decade-long battle in China over the need for advanced laboratory research has apparently ended in victory for those who feared the nation was slipping back into its 19th century state of scientific illiteracy.

The sudden turnabout in Chinese science policy may have a considerable impact on the rest of the world, for it puts the scientifically and mathematically adept Chinese back into the business of training potential Nobel Prize-winners. As the effect trickles down the Chinese classrooms, it may also cripple an effort to bring higher education to peasants and workers.

A series of articles in the official Chinese press, written after the purge in October of four Politburo members who criticized elitism in education, indicate that scientific research is again in favor and that university students are again going to be judged and tested vigorously on their academic skills.

In the last 10 years university officials have been told to give preference to children of workers and peasants instead of secondary school pupils with high test scores. Programs for advanced medical and scientific degrees have been cut back in favor of training paramedics, called "barefoot doctors," and factory technicians.

Just how far back the pendulum will swing is uncertain. The official press still praises "barefoot doctors" and scientists who go to work in factories. But at the end of January the New China News Agency also spoke favorably of instrucitons from new Chairman Hua Kuo-feng and other leaders "on paying more attention to natural sciences and to theoretical study and on bringing the role of specialized scientific research institutes into full play . . ."

The official media are now throroughly roasting the hero of a recent student revolt, against hard academic work, that China's professors obviously saw as a dangerous threat to the future of Chinese science and learning.

The youthful hero, Chang Tiehsheng of Liaoning Province, became famous for an allegedly "blank" examination paper he gave his secondary school instructor in 1973. He called the exam a surprise attack on a student of humble peasant background like himself, a way to keep the proletariat from winning coveted places in universities.

The Chinese are now told that Chang's exam was not blank at all. He handed it in and had only began to complain when he received a 38 per cent in language, 61 per cent in math and only 6 per cent in physics and chemistry. He made abject pleas for "special consideration" that Mao Tse-Tung's wife, Chiang Ching, and her colleagues - the four people purged in October - turned into a heroic attack on the system, the media now say, but the son of a capitalist.

Without a Nobel Prize - winner of its own to carry the torch for pure science, China's scientific community has invoked the name of the Chinese American Nobel laureate Yang Chenning.A people's Daily article says that the late Premier Chou En-lai, after hearing Yang - during a visit to China in 1972 - emphasive the need for theoretical work, told leading Peking physicist Chou E Pei-Yuan to get to work on it.

Chang Chung-chiao, one of the Politburo members allied with Chiang Ching, attacked the move the reassert pure science. He promoted the slogan "Marxist philosophy is the basic theory for all science" and blocked Chou Pei-yuan's efforts to promote natural science rival, Premier Chou.

Chou Pei-yuan now says even Mao opposed the efforts of the disgraced us, Marxism theory and the theory of electrons in physics."

As a result of the efforts by Chiang Ching and her allies in the universities, the New China News Agency revealed recently, "The students of chemistry in Peking university . . . said that many units were afraid to offer courses in basic theory. The teaching staff for such courses was disbanded and not one dared to carry out basic scientific research. The 'gang of fours' [Chiang Ching and her allies] said that the study of basic theory and research were measures that would lead to the ivory tower and going down the old road."

With the "gang of four's" encouragement, the agency said, "Students of some schools in Peking in 1974 smashed windows and the desks in their classrooms."

New students are encouraged to study and teachers encourage to enforce discipline. Intellectuals, who ruled China for centuries but who have had their ups and downs under the Communists, are now making a comeback. An old quote of Mao is again seen in the official press: "China needs the service of as many intellectuals as possible for the colossal task of socialist construction. We should trust the intellectuals who are really willing to serve the cause of socialism, and should radically improve our relations with them and help them solve any problem requiring solution, so that they can give full play to their talents."