In a way, this tiny village on a cold and muddy hillside of the Shansi plateau might be considered the center of China.

China wants to become an industrial giant, but more than 80 per cent of its people remain farmers and they have been told to look to little Tachai for their goals and aspirations.

More than 700,000 visiting Chinese peasants tramp up and down these Hills and ravines each year in search of clues to Tachai's success. Great events in the lives of the village's 450 people are recounted in the national press. One Tachai man, 63, and one Tachai woman, 30, have won more personal fame and praise than all but two or three members of the ruling Communist Party politburo in Peking.

So what is Tachai's secret? It is little more than a homegrown formula for keeping food production ahead of population growth, still the central problem of Chinese life. Tachai also offers to the millions of pilgrims who have passed through here the hope that they too can win comfort and prosperity without losing the sharp edge needed to contend with China's recurrent natural and political disasters.

To an American visitor arriving at the beginning of spring planting, the village - called a "production brigade" in Communist parlance - does not look like much. The hills and innumerable terraced fields that are the Tachai trademark stand brown and bare, nothing like the verdant rows of corn shown in papier mache Tachai models of Tachai that are exhibited all over China.

Even more disconcerting to a visitor filled with tales of Tachai's spartan traditions are the overnight guest accommodations - two-room suites larger and better equipped in many ways than those in Peking's best hotel. Picture of bustling Shanghai - Tachai's antithesis - decorate the walls and each bedroom has a huge shortwave radio that can bring in the Voice of America's rock-and-roll hour.

Tachai must bend a little in the winds of fame. The village leaders regularly entertain foreign dignitaries like Dutch Crown Princess Beatrix or Burmese President Ne Win and people like that can not be expected to sleep on the heated stone KANGS favored by the villagers. The foreigners are kept by themselves in a brickwall enclosure, as separate as possible from the villagers who want to keep on with the work of manicuring their now-famous fields.

One look at Chia Lai-heng, 52, a village revolutionary committee vice chairman erases any suspicion that the people of Tachai might be anything more than ordinary north China peasants. Chia has a leathery, weather-beaten face and a wide smile of rotten teeth and chapped lips. He greets visitors in the popular garb of blue cap, blue short coat and dirty black trousers rolled up at the bottom over rubber boots.

Chia points to village members here and there digging at the corners of hill slopes, helping build up and widen the terraces that have greatly increased the village's arable land. "Tiger Head Hill used to be barren," he said, indicating the peak that looms over the village, "but now we grow trees there, pine and cypress. We had to remove the rocks on the hill and carry them down here to support the terraces."

When the village was created by the Communists in 1945, at the opening of their successful four-year civil war against the Nationalists, Tachai's rundown fields were divided by steep ridges and rocky gullies. The north China loses soil, deposited over the ages by dust storms blowing down from Mongolia, washed away during steady rain or turned rockhard during droughts. The creek that watered Tachai's few good fields often flooded and swept away the crude peasant homes.

But then a local farmhand named Chen Yung-kuei, said to have been inspired by the Communist message, began to organize the village's poorer peasants into a reconstruction corps that tore down hills, rerouted streams and increased grain production 25-fold.

Chen, the acknowledged hero of Tachai and China's most famous peasant, had been orphaned at age 9 after his impoverished father had sold his mother to a landlord and then taken his own life. Chen's skill at persuading the Tachai peasants to give up private plots and work long hours for the good of the whole village began to win renown in the 1550s. Then Tachai received its most severe test when a huge flood struck at late 1963.

"More than 90 per cent of the houses were wrecked and more than 80 per cent of the fields were destroyed," Chia recalled. Chen and the other villagers vowed to rebuild everything quickly, starting with the fields and leaving their wrecked homes until last. They refused to accept any outside aid, Chia said. One brigade member who particularly distinguished herself in that crisis was 16-year-old Kuo Feng-lien, who formed an "iron girls" team that worked 18-hour days to repair the terraces and reinforce them in a new way conceived by Chen.

Kuo, now 30, has since married a shepherd, given birth to one child, and succeeded Chen as brigade revolutionary committee chairman. Chen himself has gone on to become a vice premier and member of the politburo, instantly recognized by the white kerchief he usually wears around his head. The faces of both Chen and Kuo are regularly seen in Chinese news documentaries, and their pictures are up everywhere in the Tachai Exhibition Hall in the neighboring town of Hsiyang. The exhibition also displays the rice bowl Chen brought with him to Tachai as a child, and the first mule the brigade ever purchased, now stuffed for posterity.

In 1964, in the wake of the village's triumph over the flood, communist party Chairman Mao Tse-tung proclaimed the slogan, "In agriculture, learn from Tachai." The brigade began to be sucked into the maelstrom of Chinese politics. Like Ford's Theater or the Watergate Apartments, the village's gray-brick dormitory-style buildings have picked up an aura of history in spite of themselves.

In the neat one-room or two-room apartments of the villagers are dozens of photographs, many of world leaders or Chinese figures like Mao or Chou En-lai touring the brigade.

"Chairman Mao had three visits to Tachai," Chia said. "But he refused to take a car up to the hilltops. Each time he walked." His ill-fated wife, Chiang Ching, "didn't care to a walk up the hill when she visited separately, Chia noted.

Unmoved by historical precedent, we took a car up the hill to view what may be one of the world's most famous pig stys. When Chiang Ching saw the neat stucco pig quarters last September, she flew into a rage. The Tachai villagers had built it right on top of a trench she, with much ado, had helped dig a year before as the start of an air raid shelter. As Kuo later told the story, Chiang "pointed her finger and me and shouted bitterly: 'Don't you know that my air raid shelter is of great political significance?"

The Tachai villagers rather enjoy telling these stories, now that Chiang has been branded a counterrevolutionary. When I asked where Chiang held the Tachai poker games she used to wile away the time while Mao was dying, Chia smiled and indicated our rooms and several others alongside. "Oh, she used all these quarters," he said.

Peking boasts that with interference from the likes of Chiang removed, Tachai's message of self-reliance, collectivization and water control is spreading rapidly throughout the country. An even more important Tachai theme is mechanization, the 80 per cent of Tachai's fields that are now worked by the brigade's seven "East is Red" tractors.

Peking says the prescribed rate of 100 new counties a year reaching Tachai standards in yield, mechanization and political organization is holding up. The resultant ability of the country's farms to withstand natural disasters, noted by foreign analysts last year, appears to be increasing.

But the people of Tachai say they worry a little about their children, some of whom have been known to ask why everyone must still rise at 5 a.m. if all the big battles have been won. Amid the carefully tended terraces, the brigade has left untouched one barren, rock-stewn gully. Chia points it out to visitors as a remainder that "no one is Tachai will ever forget the way things were."