It was, as White House dinners go, an important event, but glamorous it was not.

There was an air of electricity among the 100 or so guests who had been chosen to attend, but the mood was also somber and serious. Any thought that Richard Nixon might have upstaged the Chinese was dashed early on by his separate arrival, quick entrance to the reception room and equally hasty departure to the dining room.

Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping and his wife Cho Lin entered by the North Portico, as did the other Chinese guests and Nixon, avoiding all but minimal contact with the press. Henry Kissinger, too, arrived quietly through the diplomatic entrance.

To a pool reporter at the North Portico, Nixon remarked tersely, "I'm here as a guest of President and Mrs. Carter. I look forward to seeing them again. I don't want to comment on anything else."

Regular guests, who included the Carter cabinet and members of Congress, came in through the East Entrance, ran a gauntlet of reporters and photographers and fended off questions about how they felt about Nixon being invited back to the White House.

Most of the guests shrugged with embarrassment and avoided the question by rushing past the reporters. Some made jokes. Actress Shirley MacLaine announced she would say "nothing" to the former president.

Only Sen. Howard Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) seemed to welcome the question. "It's time Richard Nixon was recognized as a former president of the United States," he said. "There are presidents who were popular and others who were not, but all are former presidents.

"I think it's a good thing. I think it was a generous gesture, an appropriate recognition for his contribution."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), accompanied by his sister, Eunice Shriver, successfully avoided the press the first time, but he was nabbed later in the East Room.

Flushing, he said reluctantly, "Well, I, I, I'm, uh, I think he's, uh, welcome here."

Upstairs in the East Room, where cocktails (red wine, white wine and orange juice) were being served, the bright lights for television made the room seem austere and rather uninviting. Background music was provided by the Marine Band and guests were announced over a loudspeaker as they entered.

Off to one corner, in a line against the ropes, all of the Chinese guests in their gray Mao suits stood isolated from the rest of the guests.

Only an occasional guest -- Sen. and Mrs. Charles H. Percy, Kissinger, Andrew Young -- wandered over to speak to the Chinese, who were all sipping orange juice.

As most of the guests were introduced, no one really paid much attention until "The Honorable Richard Nixon" was announced. A slight hush fell over the room and an audible "Oooooooooh" could be heard as most eyes turned to stare at the former president.

Nixon burst red-faced into the room and was immediately whisked by a White House aide to a corner in the back of the room where many of the Chinese were standing, apparently uncomfortably, shifting from foot to foot.

Before people could focus on Nixon, the Tip O'neills, Cyrus Vances and Walter Mondales were announced. The only two persons in the room to approach Nixon were Kissinger and John C. White, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Later, White would say only that the conversation consisted of "generalities and social chit-chat."

Kissinger elaborated some.

"I said I was glad to see him again," Kissinger said. "We retired people reminisce about ourselves, not about the Chinese." Kissinger admitted it was a rather emotional conversation, saying of Nixon: "He seemed to be very happy to be back."

After President and Mrs. Carter were announced with their guests of honor, they took their places for the receiving line on little blue marks in front of the television cameras and bright lights.

Nixon was one of the first to go through the receiving line, after Vice President and Mrs. Mondale and Speaker of the House and Mrs. Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. Mrs. O'Neill broke protocol by going through the line ahead of her husband instead of behind him, where she would have been standing next to Nixon.

When Nixon greeted the president it was a succinct, "Glad to be here." He then dashed past the press, answering briefly a question about his daughter Tricia. "She's fine. I'll be seeing her tomorrow." And then he was led into the dining room.

Once the guests began moving through the receiving line, they appeared to be charmed and delighted by the vice premier and his wife.

She was dressed in a black-and-gold brocade Chinese jacket with simple black Gucci-like shoes with gold buckles. She carried a gold-flowered brocade evening bag. The other Chinese women were dressed similarly with fancy velvet and brocade tops over the utilitarian pants.

By contrast, most of the American women wore long evening dresses, though covered at neck and shoulders.

Teng bobbed up and down, greeting each guest.

As the room thinned out, one of the last guests to go through the receiving line was Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser. He was in his element, having already entertained the Tengs at a small private dinner at his house the night before.

"I told Teng at dinner," Brzezinski excitedly told the press, "that my wife gave a speech, a toast, at the official state dinner I gave in Peking for the Chinese foreign minister.

"When she came back, she was told she shouldn't have [spoken], and Teng immediately said this was a violation of her human rights, that 50 percent of all the people in the world are women."

As soon as everyone else had cleared the room President Carter stood chatting alone with Teng and a translator while Mrs. Carter stood and talked with Madame Cho and her translator. Finally Mrs. Carter put her arm around Madame Cho, the president put his hand on the vice premier's elbow and the four went into dinner.

In his dinner toast, Carter said:

"After too many years of estrangement, our two countries grasp the opportunities to reestablish these vital formal links between us."

He pointed out to Teng that he was a farmer, a former military man who upon returning to the farm was struck by its transformation by scientific knowledge and technology.

"I know the shock of change, and the sometimes painful adjustment it can require as well as the great potential for good that change can bring to individuals and nations. I know too that neither individuals nor nations can stifle change."

Teng, in his response, called last night's dinner "representative of a new era" in Sino-U.S. relations.

Teng gave credit to the late Mao Tse-tung and the late Chou En-lai, "who blazed a trail for the normalization" of diplomatic relations. But he also acknowledged the efforts of former president Nixon and Kissinger, the former secretary of state, and former president Gerald R. Ford, who was not there although he had been invited.

As the evening progressed, Nixon seemed to grow more relaxed in the elegant State Dining Room where he had presided over historic state visits.

There, beneath the chandeliers, amid the crystal and silver and the smiling Chinese visitors and the glittering crowd of wealthy and powerful Americans, he became almost ebullient as he raised his glass in toasts.

Even former presidents, apparently, are suckers for White House souvenirs. During dinner, Nixon circulated his engraved, gilt-edged menu card asking others at his table to sign it so he could take it home "to Pat."

Some went further than just their autograph, adding brief messages. Loraine Percy, the wife of Sen. Percy, personalized hers, scrawling, "To Pat With Love."

Nixon also volunteered to sign the menu cards of others, and before it was all over, everyone at his table, which included Vice Premier Fang I, had signed everyones.

It was Brzezinski who thought to ask Nixon to reminisce a little about other world leaders he had met. "You won't catch me naming them," Nixon replied, with a laugh, "because each one is different." He named a couple anyway, including Charles de Gaulle, the shah of Iran and Chiang Kai-shek.

"He has a great sense of history," said Loraine Percy, who had been eavesdropping.

After dinner, as guests claimed coats and headed for chartered buses taking them to the Kennedy Center gala, author Theodore White decided that the "most dynamic" group in the dining room was at the table with Carter and Teng. That was where MacLaine reigned, seated before O'Neill and Harvard University's John Fairbank.

Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho), who, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, plays host to Teng today, called it "mainly ceremonial tonight but this could be the beginning of a very beneficial relationship between our two countries."

U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young settled, once and for all, speculation about whether he had intended to attend the dinner. He had been invited several weeks ago, he said, but he had not planned to attend because he "was going to meet with Teng on Wednesday... I'd see him then."

But yesterday a flap developed because the guest list includes no black American. Young changed his mind when White House social secretary Gretchen Poston contacted him.