Four thousand years after inventing an artful writing system that built an empire, the Chinese are still passionately mixing penmanship and politics.

Unlike Western phonetic alphabets, complex Chinese pictographs could always be used by people speaking many different dialects and the Chinese emperor often displayed his own calligraphy to show he has mastered the symbols that united his subjects.

Now Chinese Communist Party Chairman Hua Kuo-feng, a latter-day "son of heaven" making a shaky start, has set out to pursue this ancient tradition with a vengeance.

This kind of exercise in calligraphy is not an idle pastime.

Hua's immediate predecessor, Mao Tse-tung, who orchestrated the Communist takeover of China, had a deep appreciation of the writing brush's power in a land ruled for centuries by a literary elite.

Mao's own florid writing style, reproduced often in the Communist press, is thought to have helped convince many wavering Chinese intellectuals that the Communists might be more than just a bunch of boorish peasants.

Americans may dabble in handwriting analysis but in China it is a way of life. Until the last few years when penmanship suffered a perhaps temporary decline under radicalized school administrators, students were reminded that the way their pens or brushes twisted and turned revealed their personalities.

To many Chinese, the contrast between the styles of Hua and the legendary figure he succeeded says much about how China has changed since Mao's death in September 1976.

"Mao's characters swirl about, are of different sizes, and that shows imagination and the willingness to take chances," says one Chinese who was taught to write in the traditional way. "Hua's characters are straightforward, square, all the same size, showing a patient, businesslike approach to life."

Peking's Kwangming Daily, a newspaper aimed at well-educated Chinese, has published a glowing article on an Eighth Century scholar and official whose career and calligraphy, not surprisingly, have much in common with Hua's.

"He applied his brush lightly with horizontal strokes and heavily with vertical strokes, reminding one of the perfect image peculiar to the green pines in the world of nature," said the article on Tang dynasty official Yen Chen-ching.

"The structure of the character in Yen's calligraphy was broad, serious and stable," it said, "demonstrating elegance, magnanimity and a lofty and majestic spirit."

The writing system used by most of the world today grew out of an ancient idea, originating in western Asia, that writing symbols should tell the reader how a word is pronounced. China, cut off from the rest of the world by the Himalayas, stuck to a much different idea, that each word should portray the meaning (the character for "man" looks like a stick figure) rather than give a clue to pronunciation.

Chinese who spoke dialects as different from each other as English and German learned to pronounce the characters in different ways, but they were all able to read the same books.

Perhaps more than any other single thing, this explains why the Chinese became the world's largest national grouping and did not break up into separate states like the Italians, French and Spanish.

From ancient times the written language had a magical quality to the Chinese, which suggests another reason for the fuss being made over Hua's calligraphy.

For centuries, prayers in China were written, not spoken, and a taboo forbade throwing away anything with writing on it.

Throughout their recent political ups and downs, Chinese have continued to play games with their language and their history. The recent surge in attention to Hua's calligraphy is not exeption. The lengthy Kwangming Daily article on the Tang scholar Yen offers a feast of allusions to the modern day.

After leaving no doubt of the links between Hua and Yen, the author quotes an old commentary that Yen was "sincere and prudent, and . . . as dignified as Chou Po."

The author explained how Chou Po, an official of the Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago, shared Yen's reputation for saving a dynasty from rebellion. The allusion to Hua's success in aborting an alleged coup attempt by Mao's widow, Chinag Ching, is unmistakable. Indeed, Chou Po crushed a threatened rebellion from the relatives of an Empress Lu, with whom Chiang Ching often compared herself.

The well-educated readers of the Kwangming Daily would likely draw more insidious conclusions from this, however. They would remember that Chou Po, after being made prime minister, found himself entirely unprepared for all the technical details of the job and eventually turned it over to an elder statesman. Chen Ping.

Chen looks like an ancient version of a modern day Hua rival, veteran party official Teng Hsiao-ping. As Teng did for Hua, Chen had supported Chou for the Han Dynasty government leadership because of Chou's success in overthrowing the rebellion.

Other readers of Chinese history could point out that Chen Ping had actually supported Empress Lu until her death, and wonder if the article is not in fact a slap at Teng for some previously covered-up alliance with Chiang Ching.

No one inside or outside China, with the possible exception of the Kwangming Daily writer, knows exactly what the article means, but in Peking universities and Shanghai teahouses the Chinese are thrashing out all these questions, as they have for centuries.