Peking authorities struggling with the intricacies of Western law have arranged for the first time to have two Chinese officials undertake a crash course through an American law firm, according to a Washington attorney.

Eugene Theroux of the Washington office of Baker and McKenzie, who has visited China several times, said in an interview here that two Chinese trade officials will go to the United States in February for training at the firm's offices in Washington, New York and Chicago.

Despite Chinese government attempts to write new legal codes and rules for foreign investors, the guidelines drawn up so far are general and leave Western lawyers and traders with many questions about how trade with China will proceed. Theroux said the Chinese appear to be interested in experimenting with suggestions by him and others that the Chinese set up their own legal offices here, rather than use just Western lawyers in working out contracts and other schemes.

"There is a huge legal vacuum [here] recognized by the Chinese as well as everyone else," Theroux said.

The two Chinese officials are expected to be teachers at the Peking Institute of Foreign Trade, where background in some Western Legal procedures can be assured and where Chinese with good command of English can be found.

Theroux said the two persons to be selected will work at the law firm offices as well as attend courses at the law schools of Georgetown University, Columbia University and the University of Chicago.

Legal stuides in China suffered greatly from the anti-Western, anti-intellectual climate of the late 1960s Cultural Revolution, but the country has never had a legal tradition similar to that in the West. In ancient and modern China, people preferred to settle disputes through personal negotiations -- of violence -- rather than risk the decision of an impersonal official tribunal. Theroux cited two old Chinese sayings on the subject: "Better to enter the tiger's mouth than enter the court of law" and "Better to be vexed to death than to enter a lawsuit."

Theroux said his law firm and an unidentified corporate sponsor would pay all expenses for the six-month course of work and study by the two Chinese officials. He indicated he thought the firm would benefit from the increased contacts with the Chinese and the benefits the special training would have for all future Sino-American legal contacts.

One Chinese from one of the foreign trade bureaus here already is studying at the Harvard Law School, but the Baker and McKenzie program appears to be the first time Chinese will be working inside an American law firm. The firm specializes in international trade and is the biggest law firm in the United States with offices in 28 cities throughout the world employing about 500 lawyers.

According to Theroux, the Chinese already have moved to establish what appears to be their own law firm here. They have established a legal advisers' office in the legal affairs department of the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade. Theroux said the office is designed to "give legal advice to different Chinese departments about foreign legal practices."