When Leonard Woodcock arrived in Peking last July, many wondered how the 66-year-old labor leader would adjust to a new - and a very different - life as America's top diplomat in China.

Six months later, Woodcock - blending an odd mixture of persistence, warmth, shyness and intellectual energy - has won the respect of many Chinese and the admiration of the little Peking colony of American China-watchers.

What's more, the former president of the United Auto Workers - a man who spent his entire adult life in the American labor movement - seems to have adapted very well to life in Peking, an uncomfortably isolated city for foreigners.

"The whole cultural atmosphere is entirely different (from Detroit)," Woodcock said in a recent interview. "It is a closed society. But I do like the Chinese people, and in a very simple sense, I've come to enjoy my life in Peking."

Woodcock has often surprised people who expected a back-slapping archetype of an American labor leader.

At first, he seemed diffident, withdrawn and almost inarticulate. The people realized he was actually pausing to think about what he wanted to say.

Other than some personal reading begun years ago during an intense rethinking of the Vietnam issue, Woodcock had little contact with this part of the world before coming to Peking. Since his appointment, however, "he has really done his homework," a young China expert in the U.S. liaison office in Peking said.

"Once we were talking about Outer Mongolia and he reminded us of an important little development several years back that all the rest of us had forgotten," the expect recalled.

In the land of the dictatorship of the proletariat, where the blue-collar worker is officially enshrined as the vanguard of Chinese society, is this prominent leader of the American Labor movement deluged with questions about his life's work?


"There has been no interest at all in my former labor association," Woodcock said during an interview after a conference for U.S. ambassadors here.

Chinese trade unions are just recovering from a long political eclipse, and "although I've visited 10 plants, in only one instance was a person introduced to me as being part of the local trade union," Woodcock said.

A Peking vice mayor asked some questions about Detroit and the auto industry after Woodcock remarked on the efficiency of city services in Peking, but that was the only conversation with a Chinese touching on his former life that he can remember.

As for the shift from labor leader in diplomat. "There's a great deal of reading, which is not that much different, from negotiation reports to diplomatic cables."

"The official meetings are highly stylized in the sense that both sides are very careful how they put things," Woodcock said. "But when you get to the critical phase of collective bargaining, both sides also tend to be very careful what they say, and sometimes you have to listen very carefully for what is not said as well as what is said "something that China-watchers must do every day.

If anyone could ever be mistaken for a union leader, it would be Huang Chen, the outgoing, burly Chinese diplomat often with an arm around someone's shoulder who until late last year was Woodcock's opposite number, heading the Chinese liaison office in Washington.

Woodcock has Huang's warmth, but not his style. He never had to win an election of the UAW membership. He was picked by the union's governing board after Walter Reuther died in an airplane crash.

Woodcock provides a nice counterpoint to the young, often frenetic U.S. staff in Peking. After years of language, training and study of lengthy name lists, the American analysts are deep into the subject of China, and in many cases have developed a wild sense of humor to compensate for the single-mindedness of their profession and the isolation of Peking.

Woodcock seems much calmer. He has learned to break away from the daily obsession with China-watching through long walks or cycle rides. He has been separated for many years from his wife, and lives alone in an apartment on the second floor of the large quarters set aside for the liaison office chief.

"I've managed to read more books during seven months in Peking than I did during seven years at president of the UAW," he said. Right now, he is reading "China and The Search for Human Happiness" by Wolfgang Bauer.

"One of the points Bauer makes is that because of China's pictographic language, it was able readily to assimilate foreign influences," Woodcock said. "They had to be described in that language, and thus were changed." Three days a week a language instructor sent by the Chinese government arrives to give Woodcock his language lesson.

"The man told me once, I think he considered it a compliment, that it was remarkable that a man of my age could remember so well," Woodcock said. "I find that just when I think I've gotten beyond asking for a cup of coffee, I'm thrown for a 10-yard loss."

Woodcock was offered the Peking job in a phone call from President Carter last spring.

"I would not have accepted any ambassadorial post where there was no challenge, but I do think we have made so many mistakes in this part of the world that I wanted to be a small part of making things better," he said.

Woodcock had impressed Carter by leading a U.S. mission to Hanoi earlier in 1977 to open talks on normalizing relations with reunified Vietnam. As for China, "I feel strongly that we should over time normalize relations," Woodcock said. "I think if we had done it immediately after 1949, the history of this region would have been quite different."

In a methodical way that those who watched his labor career consider typical, Woodcock has gone about opening up new contacts with the Chinese, conferring with people like the head of the Central Bank and the Sports Minister whom his predecessor had not been able to see.

He misses his children, whom he once publicly credited with changing his mind about American involvement in the Vietnam War.

His elder daughter, Leslie, 33, who teaches labor history at the University of Michigan, has promised to visit Peking when the school year ends, along with her husband, their daughter and twin sons. Woodcock's son, John, 25, has just started work in the engineering department of Chrysler Corp.

His younger daughter, Janet, 30, does drug rehabilitation work in Boston.

They had an election to choose a Santa Claus for the U.S. liaison office Christmas party, and Woodcock was a candidate. Everybody knew he loved children, but his quiet demeanor cost him votes. Somebody else got the job.

Nonetheless he recalled, a three-year-old girl he befriended at a reception months before "came up to me at the Christmas party and squeezed my leg." "I had won," Woodcock says.