The small, slight peasant woman was barely 18 when she miscarried her first baby. It was a common enough tragedy among hard-working Chinese peasants, but her mother-in-law would not let her forget it.

"That was four years ago and still no second baby," the old woman told her neighbors during one of the endless talks that help pass the time in their village of white-washed brick cottages. "She's a child. How does she know how to take care of herself?"

The young woman, Huang Yun, knew the old women in the village blamed her, and feared they might be right. After all, she had been told nothing about having a child and, as a result, had said nothing when the first pains had come.

Through such difficult moments of family guilt and frustration, the central theme of several centuries of Chinese literature, the world's greatest baby-producing nation often brings forth its young. The latest Communist Party regulations from Peking promoting birth control mean very little to Huang Yun's mother-in-law in Guangdong Province, wringing her hands over the failure of the young, frail wife of her only son to produce a grandson.

After 30 years under one of histroy's most efficient and ambitious totalitarian governments, much of the outside world continues to see China as a nation severely bound by power struggles and little red books. But the reality of 1 billion lives -- nearly one quarter of mankind -- is far more human and complex.

After decades of enoromous social change, population growth and political shifts, the ways individuals handle the critical moments of their personal lives, such as birth, marriage and death, remain far more traditional and evocative of China's very long and rich history than any reader of the Communist Party press might expect.

The world into which countless Chinese children, particularly boys, are born, is one of anxious old women who coddle, cuddle and feed them at the slightest cry. Their grandmothers, and much of the rest of their families, are for a while their slaves.

"Chinese children, especially male ones, continue to be spoiled beyond redemption," a Chinese university professor said.

In rural villages, where 800 million of the nearly 1 billion Chinese live, there are few day-care centers. Even in large cities, not all working mothers can find space in neighborhood centers. Young women must work if the family rice pot is to stay full.

Prospective grandmothers throughout China, village or city, ache to take over the management of a small child, especially if it is a boy. Communist Party officials lapse into embarrassed silence when the subject is raised, but the old adage, "a daughter is like spilled water," still holds for many older Chinese.

Girls, once married, usually move off to live with their in-laws, depriving their families of the harvest shares they earn in the fields. Boys usually stay near their parents. They earn larger shares than their sisters anyway, and have the obligation of supporting their parents in old age. Peking has little money for social security, and insists on this ancient custom of Confucian filial devotion.

Long days stooped over a hoe, or bent double planting rice seedlings in mud, begin to wear on a woman in her forties or fifties. A healthy young wife brought home by a son provides a convenient way out. The girl can take up some of the field work and, by producing a child, give the mother-in-law a reason to stay home -- child care.

For all its push for sexual equality and a full-time workforce, communism in China nevertheless has fortified what might have otherwise been the fading institution of the domineering grandmother.

In the southern village of Dongguam, surrounded by wide, flat, green rice paddies, seven-year-old Liang Kailing took her five-year-old brother to the commune pond for some fishing. She did not return until it was too late to help her mother cook lunch. The mother began to beat the girl with a stick, but the grandmother, the husband's mother, intervened.

"These are my grandchildren," she said. "Their family name is Liang. Your family name is something else. You have no right to beat children of the Liang family."

I have visited 11 or 12 Chinese homes, nearly all the standard, tiny, two- or three-room mud cottages or apartments that are found both in rustic Dazahi and urbane Shanghai. Cramped quarters give a flavor of the terror and power of guanxi -- relationships -- the Chinese word expressing the need to consider how every action affects those around you. w

Usually, a bed is in each of the two rooms, with a third sitting room for a few lucky families. Often, kitchen and toilet will be shared with neighbors. Parents and their smallest children sleep in one bed. The grandparents, usually the husband's parents sleep in the other room, sharing the bed and its big, thick quilt with the older children.

Rooms are brightened with colorful posters of Mao Tse-tung, heroic workers and family snapshors, but they remain very crowded, especially for a new bride among people she does not know well.

In a fairly prosperous part of Fujian, on the coast across from Taiwan, Chan Sulin, from the beginning of her marriage, found her husband's temper growing steadily worse. He beat her with bamboo canes and wooden sticks, leaving dark bruises and frightening their children. She had a third child when the older two were aged 7 and 8, but it did not improve her husband's disposition. When she was 30, she asked the local party committee for a divorce. Her chances of remarrying were diminishing because of her age, and the committee understood the situation.They granted the divorce.

She never saw her children again.

Few villagers thought this remarkable. The children bore his name, didn't they? A neighbor said: "Several months later she remarried a man who lived in her old home village. The children, of course, would have been an obstacle to her getting married again. I imagine they disliked her, or at least were taught to once she left."

By some unfathomable chemistry of constant contact and a deep sense of family and place, Chinese children, often buffeted by such intense clan feelings, become by most accounts among the best behaved and most secure in the world. Most families remain intact. Divorces are still rare, although deep, emotional separations often result instead. The silent battle of mother and mother-in-law tends to heighten interest in the family. There are no televised soap operas, so drama must be home-grown.

A group of American child care specialists led by Yale psychologist William Kessen saw dozens of Chinese homes in 1973, some at scheduled stops and some not. They found the children "extraordinarily poised and well-behaved."

They would greet visitors warmly. When adults began serious talk, "a child would begin to amuse himself quietly with his own books and toys, usually without any instructions from the mother and seldom requiring the parent's attention," the Kessen group reported.

"Chinese children simply are better behaved," said a scholar and sometime diplomat who has lived in Taipei, Hong Kong and Peking. "I don't know quite how to explain it, but perhaps in the simplistic sense that if you start with the core of Confucian heritage that insists on the harmony of the moment, then you are told from babyhood not to do anything to distrub that, and that means to hide any individual feelings."

From what I have seen in several factories, this closely watched and cuddled Chinese child may, in his own small way, be holding back China's long-waited industrial revolution.

In a machine-tools factory in Shang-hai, several dozen women were crowded into the factory nursery, holding and playing with their children. No one appeared to be nursing any babies, the ostensible reason for female workers to take long breaks there. It was 10 a.m. Nurseries seen in other factories, from Nanning to Peking, attract the same crowds of careful mothers, at a time when low productivity and time-wasting in Chinese factories remain national afflictions.

The Chinese nurseries I have seen have almost no toys. There may be a few simple playthings -- wooden wagons or small rattles, tightly held by a few children -- but little else. Sharing is essential. There can be none of the Freudian, Western indulgence of selfish desires in small children.

Cooperative instincts become second nature, although the Chinese pay a price for this. There seems to be a loss of imagination and independence, whose importance may be felt in the now-frantic push for modernization.

I once watched the beginning of an art class in an elementary school. The teacher had on her easel a picture of a bus. She carefully painted it red, beginning from the upper right-hand roof down to the lower left-hand fender. Each child followed her movements exactly, not a line out of place. Walking down the hall of a Chinese school, it is difficult not to fall in step with the chants of lessons being recited in unison from each room.

"In a problem like earthquake prediction, the Chinese operate by training thousands of people and collecting millions of bits of data," an American geologist once told me. "But there is a real reluctance to try deductions, to create a theory that will get to the bottom of it, to dream and speculate. Still, they've come farther in many ways with their approach than we have with ours. They work together so well."

How the Chinese produce this intense socialization remains a mystery. It affects everything they do and their future impact on the world. Chinese intellectuals committed to Marx, not Freud, do not seem terribly interested in exploring this character trait.

After five years of worry and scolding from her mother-in-law, Huang Yun, the young woman in the Guangdong village, became pregnant again, to everyone's great relief. This time the family was determined to take no chances. Even in this special case, however, Huang Yun kept working in the rice fields until 20 days before she was due. The peasants consider this taking it easy. At home, however, housework was done by the grandmother and femal cousins and nieces.

For the first few months of the pregnancy, a village woman with experience in such things was asked to look her over. then, the family took the extraordinary step of bringing her to be checked at a hospital -- an hour's ride over 10 miles of dirt road on the handlebars of a bicycle driven by her husband, Xian.

At home, the grandmother often cooked up a special brew for pregnant women -- antaicha. It was a herbal tea, loosely translated "Keep baby comfy." Boil the herbs in water and drink, a prescription offered for nearly every Chinese ailment.

Two or three days before the child was due to be born, Huang Yun took the regular bus to a district hospital.

"They were very lucky to be in a village so near the hospital," a neighbor said. Most of the other women in the village took their chances with the local midwives, but this was a special child.

It was a boy.

After four days, Huang Yun brought the child home. In the 30th day of his life, the family held one of the pleasant little celebrations of Chinese life.

Without television, books, lively newspapers or other diversions, Chinese in the villages are left with two great entertainments -- food and gossip. The ancient festivals or banquets around which life still revolves provide the best elements of each.

Huang Yun's little village of 1,200 people could not approach the decadence of Shanghai, but her baby's "full-month feast" was a rather unusual event anyway. "More than 30 people were invited," the neighbor said. "Special tables were placed inside and outside the house. The baby was brought out and shown to everybody."

The menu included meat, only a once-a-week or monthly luxury in most villages. It was prepared in ways that would bring good luck to the baby. Special foods for such occasions include pig's legs cooked with ginger and eggs cooked with red coloring.

For one month, the grandmother cared for the baby while Huang Yun helped a bit and rested. Then the mother went back to the rice fields to work.

When the baby was bigger, about four months, Huang Yun took him with her to the field in the morning, laying him under a shade tree, strapped in a carrier. She worked until noon, and then took what in many parts of China, at strenuous times of the year, is as hallowed a tradition as it is in other parts of the world -- lunch and a siesta. At midafternoon, mother and baby returned to the fields until evening.