"Our plane is descending. A beautiful city can be seen, including many buildings, with skyscrapers standing like matchboxes separated by net-like streets. Cars, like toys, crawl the highways. The city is so big its fringe cannot be seen even from the air."

So begins, with this ode to the subtle charms of Los Angeles, an extraordinary series of articles in China's official People's Daily that has given 900 million Chinese their most detailed and favorable view of American life in decades.

In a burst of candor that could have an incalculable impact on how the Chinese view their povetry-stricken status in the World, the Chinese Communist Party's flagship newspaper has in the past month rhapsodized on the delights of U.S. architecture, marveled at the scope and excitement of American television and even blessed Washington's much-maligned subway fare collection system.

The articles have also followed the usual Chinese practice of exposing American crime, inflation and labor unrest, and some of the compliments have been a bit backhanded.

"The health conditons are not bad," wrote one of the authors, a member of a Chinese journalists delegation that recently toured the United States. "Though it was the end of summer, there were very few files and the streets were clean except in New York."

But perhaps for the first time since the Communists took power in Peking, according to veteran analysts here, China's most popular newspaper has also provided a liberal dose of sights and statistics showing ordinary Chinese the great comparative wealth enjoyed by ordinary Americans.

The articles are in keeping with China's new official interest in trade and education in the West, but such openess risks creating new, insatiable appetites. Chinese readers are likely to be startled to learn from their own government, for instance, that 97 percent of U.S. families own television sets.

Many Chinese have apparently reacted with bewilderment to these and other sudden, first-hand looks at the modern world. A Japanese reporter in Peking said some Chinese asked him, after seeing live television broadcasts of Tokyo streets during Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping's visit: "With so many cars on the road,how do people ride their bicycles?"

In their People's Daily articles, the Chinese journalists were entranced by American's tallest buildings.

"In St. Louis, we visited the famous 'arch,' a stainless steel structure soaring like a silver rainbow over the Mississippi River nearly 200 meters high. It can be seen everywhere in the city. In Detroit, we lived in the 73-floor Renaissance Center, a glass building with several circular towers, in a new and distinguished design. "

"In New York, we were invited to dine in the World Trade Center, a two-block, 110-floor skyscraper. The restaurant inside can hold 20,000 people at one time. . . . We went up to the 107th floor by elevator in only one minute. On that floor people could look down in any direction through the so-called "world's window" The sight of New york's blaxing lights at night was wonderful. " Pleased by Buildings

The People's Daily journalists have struggled to provide some Chinese context for their flurry of impressions of the United States.

Since China is in the midst of a muted debate over how much the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung, father of their revolution, should be deified, the Chinese visitors to the American capital found it natural to focus on the statues and monuments to the comparable American figure, George Washington.

In his article, " A glance at America, " Wang Jo-shui pointed out the figure of Washington surrounded by goddesses painted on the ceiling of the Capigol, and a statueof Washington in the Simithsonian.

"This symbolizes that the outpouring of art, science and technology have been bestowed and protected by the godlike Washington. " Wang concluded. " Of course . . . the defication of Washington ended long ago. . . When I asked a high school teacher whom American yough now worship, she hesitated for a moment and couldn't answer, then she said, ' Black people worhip the Rev. Martin Luther King the most. ' "

In another article, Metro's farecard system caught Wang's eye:

" Automation in America has become routine. . . . The elevators don't need attendants. If you want a Coke or a coffee, you can buy it from an automatic vending machine. . . . The most advanced of these systems may be the ticket vending machines in Washington's subway." Explaining Television

Without a word about the malfunctions that have left Washington commuters screaming in frustation, Wang went on to describe the system in some detail, perhaps for the benefit of the Hopei peasants who haven't seen such wonders before.

" It's not easy to cheat the machine. If you leave the train ahead of schedule, don't worry. The ticket can be used next time. In fact, many people buy a $5 ticket that can be used for several days, " Wang wrote.

The group also watched television, and labored to explain the importance of the medium in American to a nation like China where there is only one television set for every 900 people.

"There are nearly 1,000 television broadcasting stations and over 100 million television sets in the country, " delegation member Feng Hsi-liang said in a long story on the U.S. communications industry.

"Ninety-seven percent of the families own a TV set. The three national networks and the local stations broadcast news several times a day, and speed is of the essence. Chairman Hua's visits to Romania and Yugosiavia were televised by major American networks on the same day these events occurred. The reception was good and the colors vivid. Television news often broadcasts live situations that give a strong impression. It is not surprising that the number of viewers watching TV news is increasing. "

"Sports news is given prominence in all newspapers ragardless of their circulation or size, " said Feng. He broke down for his astonished readers, whose People's Daily rarely has more than six pages, the content of a 415-page edition of one American newspaper, apparently the Los Angeles Times.

"An American friend said, "Ours is a sports-loving nation. " This is quite true. The Americans we met seemed to each have one or two favorite sports. Everything we saw people hitting balls, swimming, rowing or jogging," Feng said.

"In visiting the editorial offices of a number of newspapers, we were impressed by the efficiency of American newspaper workers. They set deadlines and often work continually for more than 12 hours. This accounts for their rapid news reporting. Some press reports and commentaries appeared to be rather serious in exposing social problems or in reporting the 11.6 percent of Americans living in poverty last year. Other reports and articles dealt with pollution, inflation and other matters, " Feng said.

The official Chinese press used to denounce Walt Disney as a hopeless reactionary and write off his cartoon characters as tools of capitalist propaganda. No such dark language intruded on the glow of the People's Daily description of Disneyland. It even illustrated on of Wang's articles with a photograph of the amazing, mechanical President Lincoln.

"His speech was slow and dignified. His demeanor was calm and serious," wrote Wang. "I assumed he was an excellent actor, but in fact it was a machine."

Wang suggested that China might learn from Comrade Disney.

"I thought of how our country spends a lot of money for celebrations of National Day each year. But the entertainment installations are dismantled after a few days, which is wasteful," he said.

Even after President Nixon visited Peking in 1972 and relations between the two countries began to return to normal, descriptions of American life in the Chinese press continued to avoid anything that might be considered too detailed or favorable. The U.S. consumer economy was a bad example. Chinese were encouraged to be satisfied with their few possessions and work hard for the good of China rather that personal rewards.

Favorable reporting from the United States was usually restricted to stories about how well visiting Chinese dance troupes had been received, about demonstrations in favor of full diplomatic relations with Peking and about U.S. citizens warning of the threat from the Soviet Union, the enemy shared by the United States and China.

Chinese officials down to the village level have had access to a four-page, daily internal government publication. Reference News, that prints translations of stories from foreign wires and newspapers. High officials see a much thicker and more detailed collection of such stories, called Reference Materials.

Recent issued of Reference News, smuggled here by foreign visitors who occasionally find them in gutters or garbage cans, include these stories: excerpts from Nixon's memoirs dealing with the opening to China; a May 9 Washington Post story on improved U.S. relations with Hungary; a profile of Zbigniew Brzezinski by the U.S. International Communication Agency and an Agence France-Press report on U.S. Vietnamese relations. Chinese Goals

But what ever limited insights Reference News has supplied on American life, it has nothing like the reach of the People's Daily, whose stories are broadcast over the radio and displayed on most large bulletin boards in China. Reference News, like the People's Daily, has tried to highlight the class struggle in America, with such items as a wire service story on the California arrest of a Black Panther in its May 8 edition.

Such critical reporting on America is expected to continue, but in their new campaign to modernize the country by the year 2000, the new Chinese leadership had decided to harness personal initiative. They are encouraging factories to pay bonuses to their best workers and are trying to put more consumer goods - particularly television sets - on the markets so workers will have something to buy with their money.

The People's Daily series on life in America appears designed to show the Chinese what they are shooting for, although the writers were quick to point out the excesses that accompanied many of the wonders they saw.

The Chinese journalists were particularly happy to quote the words of Americans who, invariably, pointed out U.S. failings to give the Chinese a little demonstration of free speech.

Feng noted that many children watch television rather than read.

"Some American friends lamented, 'Television is no doubt a good invention, but now it has become a problem. We only wish that you will not follow our footsteps in TV programming.'"

While cruising down the Potomac River in a tour boat, Wang recalled, "I said something about admiring the beautiful scenery. Our guide said she was glad to hear that: There are beautiful things, but there are also ugly things. It all depends on what you wish to see,' she said. She was right. In fact, the river was seriously polluted."

After viewing the wonders of the New York skyline at night, Wang said he was grateful to an American who took him to see "the other side of New York." He got a guided tour of the worst parts of Brooklyn, and then "on Broadway the driver showed us places where people could see pornographic movies or striptease. He also showed us prostitutes standing along the street." Marxist Dissertations

Unlike previous Chinese analyses of American life, the People's Daily articles are relatively free, althought not devoid, of Marxist dissertations on class struggle.Instead, the Chinese journalists seemed as tentative and mystified in their conclusions as Americans often are when writing about China. The Chinese kept returning to the question of religion, and how it could mix with American materialism and high-grade science.

"When we were viewing an American television news report about Italians mourning the death of Pope Paul VI, we were interrupted by an advertisement for soap! Suddenly, soap bubbles flashed across the television screen to the accompaniment of a brass band and a bather praising the soap . . . Frankly, we were rather shocked by what we saw," Feng said.

"Every hotel room has a Bible," Wang noted. "When we visited the White House, I found two books on the President's desk, and one of them was the Bible . . . How can religion have such power in a country that has such a highly developed science and technology? The only explanation is that this is the demand of the ruling class and ordinary people still cannot control their own fate."

"How about the youth?" Wang wrote. "Those boys and girls wearing jeans and chewing gum, what do they think of life? What are their moral demands? There are not many hippies now. Many youths only want a good job. They are satisfied with rich material living. They have lost their interest and passion for both politics and religion.

"But some youth, still seeking the meaning of life, are vexed in spirit. In a Tennessee motel, a youth with long hair and beard asked if we were Chinese. He said he wanted to talk to some Chinese. He was a university student and he had discovered an interest in Chinese and Indian philosophy and religions. He was tired of Western civilization and sought peace of mind and freedom of spirit.

"Unfortunately, we didn't have much time to talk to him."