Some of the young journalists who visited the Chinese Communist stronghold at Yenan in the 1930s said they were drawn irresistibly to him, not only because of his reputation as a brilliant general but because he was so ugly he made a wonderful camera subject.

Forty years later, Hsu Hsiang-chien has become no prettier, but has remained smart and tough enough to survive war, illness and temporary political disgrace. Now, at 75, he faces perhaps his most difficult test as the fourth occupant of one of the most powerful and dangerous posts in the People's Republic of China, the Ministry of National Defense.

China's National People's Congress ended two years of political infighting, seemingly focused in part on the defense post, by appointing Hsu to the job. Vehement articles in the army press damning "opportunists" had appeared aimed at some aspirants to the job. Yet, the position's tragic history creates uncertainly as to why anyone would want it.

The first defense minister, Peng Teh-huai lasted five years. He criticized Chairman Mao Tse-tung's economic policies in 1959 and soon dropped from sight. The second man to hold the job, Lin Piao, used his influence over the 3.5 million-member Chinese army to become Mao's right-hand man and chosen successor. Then in 1971, when Mao seemed about to turn against him, Lin allegedly tried to assassinate the chairman. Lin was killed in the crash of a Trident jet while fleeing to the Soviet Union.

The third defense minister, Yeh Chien-ying, kept his peace with Mao and now the national People's Congress, China's parliament, has elevated him to the chairmanship of its standing committee, making him China's ceremonial head of state.

In the last tumultuous months of Mao's life, however, Yeh also tried to use the great influence of his office to buck Mao's policy. When his friend Teng Hsiao-ping was suddenly purged in early 1976, he disappeared from Peking for a few months, allegedly to express his displeasure. As soon as Mao was dead, Yeh helped arrange the arrest of the chairman's widow, who had purged Teng and wanted to succeed to the chairmanship herself.

Like Yeh, Hsu is counted as a friend of Teng's, so his appointment might be seen a threat to Mao's successor. Hua Kuo-feng. Hsu appears to be a committed military man, whose desire for modern armaments for China's ramshackle army might clash with Hua's desire to build the civilian economy.

But he might also have a connection with Hua, whose past associations are little known. Both men were born in Shansi Province. Hsu was actuve in the conquest of his home province in the last months of the civil war in 1949, when Hua was also active in the province as a county leader. In any case, Hsu has the markings of a compromise candidate, perhaps not as close to Teng as Canton army commander Hsu Shih-yu, yet not a former Teng critic like the Peking army commander, Chen Hsi-lien.

Peking wasted no time signaling Hsu's new importance in the Chinese leadership. Yesterday the People's Daily ran a front-page article by Hsu about the late Premier Chou en-lai, now the patron saint of the Hua-Teng administration.

Hsu made candid disclosures of his political troubles, shared by many other veteran officials, during the Cultural Revolution. A party member since 1927, Hsu had been a much-decorated commander during the civil war, then dropped out of sight, apparently because of illness that included severe migraine headaches. In 1966 he suddenly rose to prominence again in the army's Cultural Revolution group, then was criticized for protecting a fellow veteran and fell back out of sight for a while.

Since Mao's death he has come back, joining the ruling Politburo and authoring a blunt attack on soldiers who let politics interfere with their obligation to obey orders.

One Hong Kong newspaper said recently, "One would say he is quite ugly, and the ugliness is accentuated by his dropping eyebrows, which, according to fortune tellers, indicate that the man is destined to be poverty-stricken and die young."

But the former school teacher and expert stone carver has "defied all the prophecies," the newspaper said, a useful talent for someone who has taken on such an ill-fated job.