When the powerful Chinese general was called to Mao Tse-tung's vacation home in Hangchow that summer of 1965, he found the chairman worried and preoccupied.

"What's to be done if revisionism emerges in the central authorities?," Mao asked. The general said he would march on Peking to stop it.

The chairman smiled. "That will be too late," he said.

Exactly two years after Mao's death, and a decade after his last great effort to leave his philosophical stamp on China, it does seem too late to save some of the ideas that were so dear, to him.

But Mao's legend remains. It may be whittled and twisted to suit his more practical-minded successors, but it is still unblemished by the sort of indignities heaped on other deceased revolutionaries. Mao's thought, in its many contradictory forms, it still cited. It lends legitimacy to, but may create future trouble for, a new, intensely competitive post-Mao society that has gone against the grain of some of the chairman's strong egalitarian notions.

Since the purges that closely followed Mao's death Sept. 9, 1976, only the late chairman's more pragmatic disciples are left in power. In a lengty reminiscence released recently by the official New China News Agency, Canton commander Hsu Shih-Yu, the general who saw the chairman in Hangchow in 1965, paints a picture of Mao the moderate. Echoing other recent official accounts, Hsu focusses on the occasions when Mao was cleaning up the mess created by one or another of his social and political experiments. At those times, Mao assumed a cautious outlook and relied on the advice and support of party chiefs who had not thought much of his experiments.

This is a clever, selective way to use the rich Maoist archive. The new Chinese government , committed to building a modern economy and army, simply has not time for Mao's more radical notions, such as eliminating the privileges of the educated elite or turning factory administration over to ordinary workers. But to Chinese who committeed themselves to those experiments and who remember his support for them, the new image of Mao must seem a sham.

The frequent, sometimes tortuous analyses of Mao's thought carried nowadays in the official press indicate that debate of sorts is still going on between Mao admirers who emphasize different parts of his voluminous writings. While Mao's repute remains high, those who favor his more radical sayings have a chance of using his words to regain power someday. That day, however, seems far off.

A commentator in the official army newspaper recently argued that all ideas, even Mao's, have to be discarded when they don't work out in practice. He admitted that some people challenge his view, and ask: "If practice is put in the first place and regarded as the sole criterion for testing the truth, then where are you putting Mao Tse-tung's thought and Chairman Mao's utterances?"

The commentator threw another Mao quote back at his critics: "The only yardstick of the truth is the revolutionary practice of millions of people.'

This is the usual refrain of any debater faced with damaging quotes from a respected authority. Mao's words must be put in context. Today's leaders of China vehemently attack the Little Red Book of Mao thoughts that was everywhere in the late 1960s when Mao launched his Great Cultural Revolution.

The little book is blamed on former defense Minister Lin Piao, who said: "Every sentences Chairman Mao says, is truth and carries as much weight as ten thousand ordinary sentences." Lin died in 1971 after an alleged attempt to overthrow Mao, so his case is a convenient foil to use against those who quote Mao too much.

When Mao's thought "is split and fragmented into separate phrases and sentences which are not related to each other," the official People's Daily said late week, "it is no longer a science correctly reflecting the laws of the development of the objective world and is therefore no longer truth."

It is unclear how far the present leadership is prepared to go in using Mao against himself.

One recent article praised a play that was once seen as supporting Mao's arch foe, former President Liu Shao-Chi, and Liu's wife, Wang Kuang-Mei. The article suggested to some foreign analysts that even Liu's reputation - he is rumored to have died - might be restored. Old Mao quotes complimenting Liu might be found.

But it seems too early to go this far in rewriting Mao. Peking's leaders appear just to want a respite from Mao's myth of infallibility, and a chance to work out their own policies without fighting his ghost. To aid this effort, they released in July the text of a 1962 speech in which Mao confessed his own errors in running the country and spoke out for "collective leadership, not arbitrary decisions by the First Secretary alone."

" . . . It often happens when I say something, regardless of whether it is correct or incorrect, if the others don't agree, I must accede to their opinion because they are the majority," Mao said in the speech.

On a boat trip in the Kwangsi regional capital of Nanning this summer, one young party member tried to explain to a foreigner how he could both respect Mao and support the new leaders when they differed with the old chairman.

"Everything Chairman Mao decided was correct," the young man said, putting the sentence carefully in the past tense. "Chairman Hua is of course now the chairman, but he is not as experienced as Chairman Mao, so you can't expect him to be always correct. So, the leadership talks together more, and decides more, and decides things collectively."