They could whistle it, hum it or blow it out of a saxophone, but for years China's 800 million people were forbidden to sing their national anthem.

In one of those Alice in Wonderland paradoxes that often develop in China, the man who wrote the lyrics of the country's top hit got into political trouble, but the man who wrote the music stayed clean. Chairman Mao Tse-tung loved contradictions, so why not keep the tune and forget the words?

But now Mao is dead. In another step forward for a more orderly China, the national parliament has solemnly approved new words for the anthem. As might be expected from lyrics "collectively composed," the rewrite is a pale shadow of the stanzas with which Paul Roberson thrilled American audiences in the early 1940s. They seem unworthy of the sprightly tune heard round the world when President Nixon landed in Peking in 1972.

The song was composed in the late 1930s during China's war against Japan. It was called "The March of the Volunteers" but is most often referred to by its first staccato lyrics, "Chi Lai!" (Stand Up!)

The man who wrote the original lyrics, Tien Han, was branded a counterrevoluntionary when the Cultural Revolution began in 1966. Mao's wife, Chiang Ching, had a grudge against him because he slighted her when he was a Shanghai leftist impresario and she a struggling actress in the 1930s. Everything Tien had touched, including the lyics of "Chi Lai," had to go.

But the song's composer, young protege of Tien named Nieh Erh, had drowned in a 1935 swimming accident long before he could get into any serious political trouble. His tune, a stirring echo of the French national anthem "La Marseillaise," was judged ideologically correct.

So bands still struck up the tune at political rallies and state dinners, and nobody sang. When a pre-Cultural Revolution film was shown again after appropriate editing, wartime youths marching against the Japanese could be seen mouthing the familiar words but the soundtrack provided only an instrumental version of the anthem.

For a while Peking switched to another song, "The East is Red," as its anthem. China's first satellite beeped the tune through space in 1967. As the Cultural Revolution subsided and the Mao personality cult cooled, the song's lyric - "The East is red, the sun is rising, China has produced a Mao Tse-tung" - aparently seemed a bit overdone.

Critics of Tien Han's lyrics to "Chi Lai" argued they were outdated, written for a nation that was flat on its back. Modern China, they said, was already standing up and marching."But that's not important," said one young refugee here who grew up singing the old lyrics. "It was the spirit of that day that mattered. It helped people remember. The lyrics of 'La Marseillaise' are outdated, too, but it makes no difference."

On Taiwan, Peking's nationalist foes suggest the Communists are simply uncomfortable with a song that calls for rebellion when they are trying to bring the country under control.

The old lyrics were: "Stand up, all you who refuse to be slaves! With our blood and flesh a great wall will be built. The Chinese nation now faces its greatest danger.From each comes fourth his loudest call: 'Stand Up! Stand up! Stand up!' Millions as one, braving the enemy's fire, march on. Braving the enemy's fire, march: march on, march on and on."

The committee that wrote the new lyrics took the closing chant and used it, along with a reference to Mao and the Communist army's famous Long March of the 1930s, to replace parts if didn't like. The result:

"March on, brave people of our nation, our Communist Party leads us on a new long long march. Millions as one, marach on, toward the Communist goal. Build our country, guard our country, we will work and fight. March on, march on, march on! Forever and ever, raising Mao Tse-tung's banner, march on. Raising Mao Tse-tung's banner, march on. Raising Mao Tse-tung's banner, march on, march on, march on and on!"

Tien Han reportedly committed suicide after he was publicly disgraced, but many of his old comrades purged along with him have since been restored to power. They stand at the front ranks now in assemblies where the anthem is sung. It would be interesting to know just which lyrics they are singing.