Peking's top leaders are differing publicly over how the Chinese people should regard the legend of Mao Tse-tung, as a surreptitious effort continues to lower the late revolutionary leader's pedestal somewhat.

Since August, key members of the Communist leadership have conducted a war of code words in speeches whose consistency leaves no doubt that a serious, if so far muted, dispute over Mao exists.

On one side are those led by number two leader Yeh Chien-ying. They say party tradition should be "maintained," an endorsement for Mao and his social experimants of the 1960s.

On the other side are those led by number three leader Teng Hsiao-ping. They say party tradition must be "revived," a denial of what Mao did in his last decade and a vote for the more cautious policies of the 1950s.

The "revivalists" appear to be winning the debate, as Mao's 1960s policies are toned down, his quotes given less prominence in the official People's Daily and his revolutionary colleagues given as much praise as he in new party histories. Nevertheless, monuments to incidents in the late chairman's life are still going up in some parts of the country and the call to "maintain" tradition has been written into new party constitution, suggesting that the conflict is not yet over.

No matter how veiled the dispute, its outcome will determine if 800 million Chinese someday may again disrupt the nation's economic progress for the kind of mass political demonstrations and study sessions that Mao thought essential to creating an ideal, previlege-free society. The outcome will also decide if the foreign books, and lighter entertainments that have appeared since Mao's death will disappear again in a new burst of orthodoxy.

Wheen Mao ran the great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, Red Guards verbally and sometimes physically attacked party officials, and local government all over China were overhauled.

The image of the Cultural Revolution has been central to the current debate, as those officials purged in the 1960s and returned to power around the time of Mao's death try to tarnish or erase the memory of Mao's last great social experiment. In one of its boldest revisions to date of the history of that period, the People's Daily said Thursday that the Red Guards "were more often than not misled into picking the wrong target to rebel against."

At the 11th Communist Party Congress in August, Mao's successor, Hua Kuo-feng, officially declared the end of the Cultural Revolution. Since then, none of the party veterans returned to power in Peking have said much about it. None, that is , except Hua, who personally benefited from the cultural revolution power struggles and who still say publicly that there will be more Cultural Revolutions in the future.

The verbal jousting over Mao's heritage first become apparent at the August party congress, when both Hua and Teng gave speeches endorsing the need to "revive and promote the party's fine traditions and style of work." Teng in particular spoke of "revival" six times in his short closing address.

Yes, 80, a military man who survived the Cultural Revolution and become a pivotal figure in Hua's assumption of power, changed the wording in his speech to "maintain and promote" the party's tradition and style. Yeh's version appeared three times in the new party constitution approved by the Congress.

Yeh repeated the same wording at the Chinese military academy in March, in a speech that extolled Mao's military thinking and always used the title "Chairman Mao" rather than the more curt phrase "Mao writings" that some generals have started to use.

Provincial broadcasts mostly adopted Teng's call to "revive" traditions, as did Hsu Hsiang-chien, the army general who succeeded Yeh as defense minister when Yeh was made chairman of the National People's Congress Standing Committee in early March.

Mao continues to be spoken of with reverence in all public utterances in China, but now other people are being idolized too. The late premier Chou Enlai, the popular patron of many of the party technocrats now in power, has been honored with sentimental articles commemorating the anniversaries of his birth and his death.

The People's Daily on Thursday said the "greatest representatives" of the movement to promote democracy and science in 20th century China were "Chairman Mao and his comrade-in-arms on the ideological and cultural front, Lu Hsun." Such a statement, putting a short story and essay writer who never joined the Communist Party in the same league with Mao, could probably never have been published in the last days before the chairman's death.

The excesses of China's first great emperor and sometime symbol for Mao, Chin Shih Huang Ti, have been noted in some recent articles. The people's Daily has discontinued its former practice of putting a Mao quote in the upper right hand corner of its front page and placing all Mao quotes within articles in boldface type.

But at the same time, along with the massive memorial hall housing Mao's body in Peking, smaller memorial halls honoring his early party a activities are opening this year in Fukien, Kiangsi, Hopei and other provinces. An old party veteran, Chiang Hun, once accused of tapping Mao's telephone, has been made president of China's Supreme Court.But a Mao loyalist, Hsieh Hsueh-kung, has retained the leadership of China's third largest city, Tientsin, despite the distribution of a book critical of Teng Hsioping even after Teng returned to power in 1977.

Unlike Stalin in the Soviet Union, Mao led the Chinese Communist revolution not only when it was in power but long before. Over 50 years of leadership he did enough and said enough contradictory things to satisfy followers of nearly every possible political stripe.So no matter what the outcome of the debate over the force of legend, at least his good name will probablysurvive.