Three American physicists, the only persons with Chinese surnames ever to win the Nobel Prize, have become part of an aggressive Peking campaign to promote science in China and turn overseas Chinese against the rival nationalist government on Taiwan.

The three men, Chen-ning Yang of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Tsung-dao Lee of Columbia University and Samuel C. C. Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have all visited China this year. Each has appeared on Chinese television and been pictured on the front page of the People's Daily wearing a Mao jacket and meeting Communist Party Chairman Hua kuo-feng.

Wang, who won the Nobel Prize for physics jointly with Lee in 1957, has actively promoted normalization of U.S. relations with China. Lee has been less outspoken, although he has visited China before and met with the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Ting, who won the physics prize in 1976, has studiously avoided publicity of involvement in any political issue until his appearance in Peking in early September.

The three men share an interest in improved scientific contact between China and the United States, a goal which apparently has the support of the U.S. government.

Yang, in a telephone interview, said that like several other Chinese-American physicists he went to China this year to visit relatives and give lectures. Yang was born in China but left for graduate work at the University of Chicago in 1945. He did not return until the beginning of U.S.-China detente in 1971, and found at first that U.S. security agencies, particularly the Federal Bureau of Investigation, showed great interest and what he thought was some hostility toward his renewed contacts with scientists in China.

But FBI agents rarely visit him now, he said, and "I think that the people who are at higher levels in Washington are pleased that I am serving as sort of a bridge between the two countries . . . I regard this as an important task for the future of the world."

Several American physicists have accepted invitations to visit China this year as Peking has begun an all-out campaign to revive research in the natural sciences, which it admits was neglected during the last several years of political strife. Physicists of Chinese descent, whether Nobel Prize winners or not, have received by far the most publicity. The Chinese-Americans say this illustrates Peking's desire to inspire its own fledging scientists and to increase its stature in the eyes of millions of overseas Chinese at the expense of Taiwan.

The rival Chinese governments seem to agree that an overseas Chinese who travels to either Taiwan or the mainland is tacitly supporting that government. The more prominent the visitor the more attention he or she receives from Peking's or Taipei's information department.

"Everytime that I meet with someone important the news people are there," said Johns Hopkins physicist Chih-kung Jen, who made the People's Daily front page when he met with China's number two leader, Yeh Chien-ying, this summer. "They make some propaganda out of it. They feel that this is doing some good."

The Chinese particularly welcomed Ting's visit this summer, since at the time Ting won the Nobel Prize last year Taiwan's official news agency made much of the fact that his father, a mathematician, lived and worked on Taiwan.

Yang said his mother, who lives in China, worries that he might be subject to harassment from Taiwan supporters in the United States because of his pro-Peking stance, but he said he so far has encountered no problems. Ting, reached in Geneva, declined to comment for the record on any aspect of his recent trip to China. Lee could not be reached for comment.

The official Chinese media have taken the unusual step of publicly crediting Yang as the inspiration for the revival of theoretical scientific research in China.

Yang, along with Jen, has also been active in promoting Sino-American relations. Both signed a full-page advertisement appearing in The Washington Post and other major U.S. newspapers in February urging President Carter to speed normalization with Peking and to end diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

The Chinese appreciate such support but also seem worried sometimes that it might backfire. They apparently remember the red-baiting days of American politics in the 1950s and, according to Jen, have expressed some concern that their Chinese-American friends might put themselves in jeopardy.

"Some of the top people came to my hotel and they asked me what activities I did in the U.S. on behalf of China," Jen said. "They said we think you are doing good, and we thank you for it, but we are a little bit concerned that the Americans on the other side are going to think that we talked to you, we persuaded you to do it. So if it comes to a point where that is the situation, we don't think we favor that so much."

Jen said his visitors noted he had been sending scientific texts to Chinese researchers who asked for useful literature in certain fields. "They said, 'Look, you send so much, and we know you are not a rich man. So don't do that so much, because that would put us under an obligation. Just give us the titles and we can buy the stuff."

Western experts say that Chinese espionage agents, short on sophisticated hardware and rarely able to blend into foreign cultures, focus much of their effort on winning over overseas Chinese. "They use ideological persuasion rather than bribery," said one expert. "That way they're convinced of their loyalty."

But recent Chinese-American visitors to Peking interviewed said they noticed no attempt by the Chinese to persuade them to do anything.

Chinese leaders seem aware of the envy and hostility that the energetic, often business-oriented overseas Chinese sometimes inspire on their non-Chinese neighbors. They make a point of publicly encouraging overseas Chinese to give first loyalty to their countries of residence, no matter how warm their feelings toward China.

"We advocate voluntary choice by overseas Chinese of the citizenship of their resident countries," Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping told a visiting group of overseas Chinese last week. "Those who have acquired such citizenship out of their voluntary choice are relatives of the Chinese people. We hope that they will make contributions to the development of their countries and work to promote the friendship between the people of China and other countries."

The late J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI regularly warned Congress that America's Chinese communities were fertile ground for Chinese Communist espionage. When legal restrictions on travel to China were removed in the early 1970s, FBI agents regularly interviewed Chinese-Americans who returned from China trips or who talked to Chinese delegations visiting the United States but that interest has lapsed, according to several Chinese-Americans.

"I go to the (Chinese) liaison office (in Washington) quite frequently," Jen said. "The people who are on the look-out have probably gotten tired of seeing one person frequently. They say, 'Aw, we know him.'"

Jen, now 70, taught physics at two Chinese universities before he came to the United States in the 1940s. Many of his colleagues and students stayed behind.

"I know most of the high-echelon scientists, including the people who make A-bombs and satellites and so forth," Jen said. "But of course I know nothing of what goes on there. I'm not qualified. I don't do classified work here." Jen does research in microwave quantum physics at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory.

None of the three Nobel Prize winners who visited China this year are known to be engaged in classified research. Their work has focussed on the mysterious properties and behavior of subatomic particles, a field where practical applications for the moment are found only in science fiction novels.

Yang said he has found in China "some very good people in specific areas of my field," but that overall the Chinese would have to be considered behind the West in theoretical physics. The publicity given his most recent visit to China, Yang said, "is a statement to the people of China that the leaders of China regard science as an important effort for the nation."

Yang met with Hua Kuo-feng for 90 minutes in April 1976 and spent another 90 minutes with him this August, far more time than any U.S. government official has spent with the Chinese leader. They discussed agricultural development, a favorite Hua topic, Yang said. He said Hua was "one of the steadiest of people, with both feet on the ground."

The American scientist said he wore a Mao jacket throughout his China trip to avoid the stares that most foreigners in Western dress receive in China. "I have found that it is much more convenient, and I am much less conspicious," Yang said.

Yang, Jen and other American physicists applaud China's plan for a national science conference early next year and Peking's recent declaration that it is "criminal to suppress free academic discussion."

The Chinese at times in their history have said the most advanced science and cultures of the world, but this has been a bad century for them.

Political turmoil, war and foreign exploitation have left little time or money for though or research.

No citizen of any part of China has even won a Nobel Prize and Peking understands the prestige which comes from such an award. The Chinese appear to be listening carefully to those who can tell them how to train future winners and, said Jen, "the fact that we can talk to them in Chinese makes it all the easier."