The late Chairman Mao Tse-tung's dream of a new unselfish Communist, motivated only by a commitment to socialism, is swiftly evaporating, a two-week journey through China reveals.

After years of strife and uncertainty, China's workers have been ordered to turn away from politics, shed their casual work habits and devote themselves to production with an eye toward material rewards.

The change has come so suddenly in the few months since Mao's death that some Chinese are confused over just what to say about it, interviews in three large cities and one remote rural county indicate.

Here in Shanghai, where Mao's idealistic view of man was official dogma for a decade, metal shutters are up on the shop windows at night and guides warn foreigners against "class enemies" who snatch pruses.

At the Shanghai machine tool factory, young workers last year enjoyed cricket fights on company time. These activities are now sternly labeled "anarchism" and strict rules have been posted.

In some factories, managers are nonplussed by the sudden official endorsement of material incentives that Mao opposed. They find themselves condemning and praising bonuses for workers in the same briefing.

But Chinese officials, and the few workers I met by chance, seem genuinely relieved at the change. Visitors get a sense of wounds being healed and top-level decisions being made that allow the Chinese to proceed with their lives.

"Most of our young people studying in our medical schools are top people," said a Shanghai hospital administration, after complaining of how the old emphasis on politics distracted doctoral candidates. "The aim of their studies is rather clear now." This is the kind of pragmatic atmosphere the Chinese enjoyed in 1956, 1964 and 1975 but then saw slip away in bursts of Maoist political reform. This time, if the Chinese can maintain the relative calm, they are likely to hasten their rise as a formidable economic and military power and present great opportunities as well as dangers to the United States.

Even with the ever-dissatisfied Mao Tse-tung dead, China continues to have some muted political disputes. But foreign residents and the Chinese themselves acknowledge that the country's vital urban core - Peking, Canton and this port city of 10 million people - is calmer, happier and more productive than it has been in some time.

The Chinese say this is only natural, since the troublemaking clique of Politburo dogmatists led by Mao's widow, Chiang Ching, has been defeated and its followers here rooted out.

While Party Chairman Hua Kuo-feng and members of his administration argue among themselves about policies and personalities for the future, the Chinese below them have received the message that such disputes must no longer be allowed to take up time on the job.

"There was confusion before," said a factory man ager. "Now we can work all-out to over fill our quotas."

There is a certain harshness to life after Mao. Wallposter announcing stiff court sentences, such as death for action-card forgery, are in Canton. In Peking, barbed-wire fences have gone up around supply dumps and the government, strapped for funds, reportedly has put a freeze on housing projects. But a foreigner walking through city streets finds the Chinese remarkable at ease and sometimes even irreverent in contrast to the atmosphere reported by travelers as recently as a year ago.

Workers in factories and shoppers in stores answer questions with a minimum of self-consciousness, once they see that the questioner is properly escorted.

The fact that the Chinese Foreign Ministry, for the first time since Mao's death, granted a visa to a Chinese tractching 'American journalist suggests a new confidence. Peking apparently thinks its political troubles are so [WORD ILLEGIBLE] it has little to fear now from a reporter who can read Chinese and lives in rumor-filled Hong Kong.

China, never without a political slogan, is criticising the crimes of Chiang Ching and her "gang of four." But in dozens of conversations with workers and officials, the discussion of politics ofter branched off into a discussion of work: how to get more of it from each laborer and how to reward it.

The Chinese have a reputation for energy and diligence, so a first-time visitor is surprised to find a somewhat leisurely atmosphere in Chinese factories, in comparison to the beehive.

Chinese workers appear conscientious but their workshops are often everstaffed and some appear to have little to do. The jobs and wages of Chinese workers are virtually guaranteed and that does not encourage all-out effort.

"There is kind of a WPA atmosphere, at least here," said a foreign resident of one large Chinese city. "There people will come to do a job that needs only one."

"There were a small number of workers who were influenced by the policies of the gang of four," said Hsu Ta-chiao, a fitter in a suburban Shanghai farm tool factory when asked about the problem. "They thought that putting energy into production meant not giving proper emphasis to politics."

Hu Chin-hua, 58, a recently retired rubber worker, said she had to lecture some younger workers in her plant because they did not remember the unemployment and slave wages in China before 1949.

At the Peking heavy electrical factory, managers say they were hampered by the policy of some top leaders, since discredited, that "the spearhead of criticism should be directed at the leadership, not at the masses, for that would be suppression of the people." In other words, lazy or careless workers could not be disciplined by their foreman.

Ying Yung-kuan, an official of the factory, said that some "bad elements" had even "made public property into private property." Did he mean stealing? "That's right."

Factories in Shanghai and Peking seen busy now. Workers who do not follow orders can expect trouble but they are still consulted by their bosses on changes in schedule and production. Inspectors who oversee the out-put of other workers ar often elected by their colleagues and overdue wage boosts that might stimulate production have not yet come.

The Chinese treasure family and leisure. They have usually heard the Western work ethic - the greatest profits to those who work the hardest - criticized or at least not encouraged. Westerners who have dealt with the Chinese regularly say that in China the concept of efficiency and making the most of resources is just not the same.

"They do not see a need to work themselves to the bone," she one Western economist.

Working for personal advancement or fulfullment has little place in this system. "Why are you working so hard?" Hu Tsui-chiu, 49, was asked as she folded handkerchiefs in a Shanghai neighborhook factory.

"To build socialism," she said. Her salary is about $15 a month.

Mu Mei-lan, 22, a lathe operator in the [LINE ILLEGIBLE] was added the [WORD ILLEGIBLE] .

"To work for social construction," she said. Her salary is about $18.

While the Chinese occasionally indicate a desire for a little [WORD ILLEGIBLE] life, many party leaders still consider material incentives, even in this new atmosphere, a sensitive topic.

A three-hour visit to the Shanghai tools factory reveals the struggle of pragmatian versus idealism. Mao's theories of motivation through heightened political consciousness are gradually being replaced by the old-fashioned carrot and stick.

The plant is a series to two and three-story trick buildings in a wooded, parklike block alongside a traffic-clogged Shanghai street. In 1949 the factory had only 22 workers, mostly repairing textile machines. Today it has 3,400 workers turning out. $37 million a year in tools of all kinds.

Tsin Kuo-pao, a leading member of the plant's Revolutionary Committee, gives the impression of a man who has gone through a year of trial and is glad it is over. "The problem of Shanghai was resolved" just two months before, he says.

City officials later disputed this, saying most problems were settled with the fall of the gang of four in October.

The factory met its quota nearly every month during the last three years, but some party leaders in Shanghai were not particularly appreciative, Tsin said. Then, a year ago, the city party committee sent in propagandists to drum up support in the campaign to criticize Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping, a leading proponent of strict supervision of factory workers.

"The workers were not working with their whole attention," Tsin said. The factory fell short of its monthly production target by $100,000. A leading official of the city electrical machinery bureau said that was all right, as the long a s the anti-Teng campaign continued.

Then the cricked fad hit. Young workers took advantage of the loose supervision to go into nearby fields and catch crickets for match-box battles that attracted many onlookers.

One factory offical complained to Shanghai Mayor Chang Chun-Chiao, who the Chinese now say distorted Mao's thought on learning from the working class.

"Don't criticize the young people who catch the crickets," Tsin quotes Mayor Chang as saying. "The leading members should go help the young people catch the crickets, and when they have got that experience they can encourage the workers to go back to work.

"This meant," Tsin said, his voice rising in exasperation, "they openly advocated anarchism."

Tsin still seems caught in the confusion, uncertain how to balance the idealistic Maoist creed with the new realism emanating from Chairman Hua and his advisers in Peking.

Would the plant now offer material incentives to help boost production? "That is a revisionist idea," he said. "We workers hage resisted that erroneous idea . . . In 1956 when the Soviet specialist were working in the factory, they spread the idea of more labor, more pay and more honor. It is the wrong idea."

But hasn't Chairman Hua himself promised to raise living standards step-by-step with production increases? Well, yes, answered Tsin, pausing briefly. "Those who are good at production and have a good attitude will get their awards . . . in money. It is not a great amount. Our intention is to encourage them to work even better."

The topic bothered Tson. When I toured the factory and questioned Wang Kun-Feng, 45, a drill press operator, Tsin listened carefully.

How much did Wang make a month? About $36. When was the last time he had a raise? Tsin's eyes widened at the question. "In 1960," said Wang, his answer confirming the two-decade freeze for workers in all but the bottom two for three wage grades.

Tsin told the Chinese guide taking us around that it was time to move on. But Wang was still talking: "My wife works so our living standard has imporved, and I hear there will be wage increases later this year."

Is that true? Tsin was asked. "It's possible," he said.