A year ago the tall Monument to the People's Heroes in central Peking marked a zone of tension and fear.

Blood had been spilled there in a mass riot the previous spring. China's aged colossus, Mao Tse-tung, had just died and guards were posted to discourage more eruptions of a growing power struggle.

Today that same monument has all the intrigue and tension of an Iowa county fair. Bright-colored umbrellas shade relief and refreshment stations for thousands of Chinese sightseers. Sidewalk cameramen do a thriving business photographing beaming teen-agers against the background of the Great Hall of the People just across Tien An Men Square.

On the surface, China, a year after the death of Chairman Mao, seems calmer, happier and perhaps disappointingly ordinary to admires of Mao's revolutionary goals. But the world's most populous country is far too big to leave any clear, unalterable impression from the jumbled events of one of its most remarkable years.

Foreigners seeing small parts of China in brief visits and talking to residents and other travelers get brief flashes and short stories that reveal change, confusion and many other things quite Chinese.

This June, in the midst of reports of growing calm throughout the country, a young Hong Kong Chinese visited the huge industrial city of Wuhan. He asked about crowds of commuters vainly waiting at bus stops and was told the bus drivers were on strike. His guide said some drivers were still under the influence of the infamous "Gang of Four" led by Mao's widow Chiang Ching, whose removal from power nine months before had brought the post-Mao power struggle to a quick end. But why are they striking, the visitor asked. There was no answer.

"How has the fall of the Gang of Four changed your life?" an American reporter visiting Peking last month asked his guide. It was a question Chinese often find difficult to answer, for the correct line is that the "Gang" failed in most of its alleged attempts to disrupt the country.

The guide thought for awhile. "I don't have to go to operas anymore," he said finally, referring to Chiang Ching's musical productions. "I hate opera."

During the summer of last year, as Mao's health began to fail and his most dogmatic disciples tried to establish their own authority, Chinese and American trade officials met in Peking. After an exchange of pleasantries, an official of the Bank of China began to lecture his American guests on the crimes of the American Express Co., which had recently joined an organization promoting trade with anti-Communist Taiwan.

If any more American companies joined such an organization, "we would regard it as a black mark against you," the man said.

That evening, one of the Americans attended a new movie with his Chinese hosts, and was stunned to see the villian played by an actor who was deadringer for Teng Hsiao-ping, the pragmatic vice premier who is today China's No. 3 leader. The villain was vanquished but at the end one hero proclaimed that there were "people behind him still at large." The reference to several veteran army generals, and perhaps to then-premier and now chairman Hua Kuo-feng, seemed unmistakable. The Chinese in the audience seemed ill at ease.

This month a top Chinese trade official visiting the United States is scheduled to stop by at two companies who joined the Taiwan trade group. And in Peking, audiences are said to be laughing out loud at revolutionary slogans inserted into love scenes.

This fall of the "Gang" meant a long overdue wage increase. "I wouldn't mind a raise," said one man, boldly challenging the official line against material desires.

"You don't need one," his colleague interjected, his eyes on the foreigner. "You know we have no inflation."

"Of course," the first man replied, "but I wasn't married 10 years ago, and now I have a wife and two children to support on the same wage."

Mao Tse-tung was a self-improvement buff, an old cultural compulsion in both China and America. In Shanghai, this has resulted in more than 250,000 people studying English with the aid of radio lessons heard daily over the Spare Time English Broadcast Forum.

Workbooks for the lessons sell out within hours whenever a new batch becomes available.

With English the Chinese can make uncharacteristically flip remarks or even deliver strange secret messages. An official interpreter with a faultless command of colloquial American English told two U.S. journalists that the next day's schedule called for a visit to a county hospital.

A second guide, less adept in English, stumbled over the word "county" and pronounced it "commie." The first interpreter grinned. "That's right," he said, "the hospital we will visit tomorrow is both a county and a Commie hospital.

Such stories seem to show a nation moving fitfully away from slogans and confrontation polities and toward increased living standards and industrial production. But there are pulls in other directions that no foreigner can entirely comprehend.

The official provincial radios monitored here still give hints of disputes between political factions in some areas. "We must continue to . . . smash the bourgeois factional network of the Gang of Four and their confederates," said an Aug. 28 broadcast from Fukien Province, where troops instituted martial law last year.

An Anhwei broadcast the day before said: "We can never peasefully do a good job of implementing [central policies] . . . At present, bourgeois factionalism has emerged in certain localities and units."

But many of these dispute may have little to do with last year's purge of Chiang Ching's Gand of Four, although there are probably millions of youg officials who prospered under Chiang's patronage and feel cheated by her fall. Chinese are just as susceptible to local quarrels as Americans who become emotionally involved in strikes or PTA curriculum disputes. Personalities clash, and bitterness remains long after the issues have faded.

In China, however, practice dictates that every squabble a placed in the general political context, so combatants who might know next to nothing about Hua Kuo-feng or Chiang Ching find themselves rallying around the banner of one or the other. A dispute over which village should use the waters of a local stream "may leave people ready to come out at each people ready to come out at each other with clubs," said one analyst. "But for all we know such disputes may go back to the Ming dynasty."

What success the Chinese have had in ending political quarrels in both Peking and the provinces may be the result of a return to a system of government by consultation that Mao broke away from 20 years ago. Politburo members now seem to be checking ideas with each other and with local leaders, in what is praised as "our party's fine work style."

The Chinese Communists appeared to rule by consensus until the late 1950s, when Mao insisted on launching the accelerated economic development program called the "Great Leap Forward" over the advise of more cautious financial experts in the Politburo.

When the Great Leap failed, Mao stepped back into his role as first among equals, but by 1966 he had become disturbed by the failure of his colleagues to eliminate privileges of rank and other vestiges of traditional Chinese society. Without consultation, he gathered a few key allies in the media and the army and directly attacked fellow Politburo members like Liu Shao-chi and Teng Hsiao-ping, forcing them into disgrace and early retirement during what Peking calls the Cultural Revolution.

By last year, many of these disgraced officials, led by Teng, had returned to power to fill gaps left by the fall of Lin Piao, Mao's key army ally in 1966 who turned against him in 1971. When Mao died, his wife and a trio of cohorts from Shanghai attempted another Cultural Revolution-style attack on veteran officials in the Politburo and several provinces. Without Mao's personal prestige behind them, they failed. An alliance of party bureaucrats and army generals headed by Hua finally arranged for their arrest the night of Oct. 6.

Since then, a collective leadership teminiscent of the 1950s has emerged.It is led by Hua, 56, the man Mao designated as his successor in early 1976; by Defense Minister Yeh Chien-ying, 79, and by Teng, 74. Hua is too young to have joined the Communists' 1935 Long March that saved them from annihilation by the Nationalist Chinese. Yeh, Teng and several other members of the Politburo all participated in that landmark chapter of recent Chinese history.

Until 1971, Hua's career had gone no farther than assorted party posts in the province of Hunan, while his colleagues on the Politburo have been at the center of Chinese decision-making for decades.

But Hua's elders appear to feel he is capable and that it is good for the party to have as chairman a man who is relatively young and healthy. They have made a concerted effort to promote his image. A recent magazine article, for instance, recounted Hus's wartime exploits in North China helping small bands of guerrillas harass the Japanese.

The relationship between Hua and Teng, the man of the hour in China since his unprecedented second comeback from political oblivion, is the most important and the hardest to discern in the Politburo. Many of the changes in Maoist doctrine now being reported in China - such as more training and research money for scientists, more emphasis on personal competence and less on worker-peasant class background - seem to be vintage Teng. But Hua would be expected to have a veto over policies he did not like.Partciularly difficult issues might severaly test the relationship between the two men.

Some analyst think they managed to overcome one potential area of dispute around the time of Mao's death. Some members of the Politburo other than the "Gang of Four" participated actively in a campaign against Teng and their positions were in jeopardy when Teng returned to power. Perhaps because of intervention by Hua, they have been allowed to remain on the new Politburo in return for the addition of several Teng supporters from the army and bureaucracy.

Past periods of political relaxation, like this one, have eased the usual restrictions on special privileges for high officials. "You can tell how things are going," said one veteran Chinawatcher, "by counting the number of Red Flag sedans (China's Cadillac) in front of the Peking department store." A visitor to the store one afternoon last month counted three such vehicles. If privileges increase, demonstrations against bureaucrats might resume, even without Mao to back them.

Chinese workers view themselves as the true elite of their Marxist state. They seem perfectly willing to defy superior authority when they see fit.

Just last month an American reporter tried to get a taxi from his Peking hotel to a nearby restaurant, Foreigners in China have the same effective rank as high officials. They can usually get good food, private rooms and cars on demand. But the lone driver manning the taxi stand just stared at the hotel guest.

"Sorry," he said. "I haven't had my lunch yet." And that was that.