Linmei heard about the examination while visting her parents in Canton. It is not unusual for young, urban Chinese to remember this moment precisely. It was a watershed creating both hope and fear in a generation deadened by lack of adventure and challenge.

After four years of bending over rice paddies in northern Guangdong Province, Linmei realized that now, out of the blue, she had a chance to get into college, if only she could remember enough of her high school lessons. Much had washed out of her memory during years of monotonous loading and planting, digging and carrying, cutting and baling.

In the winter of 1977, China gave its first national examination for college entrance in a decade. Suddenly, millions of youths sent to work as field hands in the countryside were encouraged to rekindle old dreams of careers in science, government or teaching. If they passed the examination, they probably could spend the rest of their lives in a city -- the great hope of Chinese sick of the drudgery of village life.

The examination would tax their memories and academic skills. Their political thoughts and activities -- or lack of them -- had brought many of them to grief in the past. But this time they were led to hope politics would no longer be the key factor.

The yearly, five-part, two-day examination has become perhaps the most important reform of the post-Mao era in China. For many young people in patched clothing and ill-fitting eye-glasses, hunched over small desks in exam rooms located in local elementary shcools, it is also a grim nightmare.

Linmei had two months to review for the 1977 test. The stickiest and most detailed points of her academic Achilles heel, physics, plus math and the Communist Party's labyrinthine philosophy, would be on the test. Days passed at her commune and she grew more desperate. No one would release her from the exhausting daily chores to study.

"I did not dare be absent from work during the day, because I thought the work group leader might bar me from the examination. At night, there were blackouts. It was a busy harvest season and they needed the electricity for other things than lighting our rooms. Some people just left, went home without permission back to Canton, but I didn't dare," she said.

Some youths say they forgot too much in the countryside. Others found themselves burdened by family responsibilities that made college impossible. To fail the test, as do 16 out of every 17 applicants, or not to take the test at all, was to surrender to hopelessness.

"When I failed to receive any college acceptance notices, like everybody else I started to think about preparing for the next examination," Linmei said. "Then I considered the fact that I had not told the leaders in my unit that I had two sisters who had escaped illegaly to Hong Kong. I was afraid that if that fact was exposed, say that I had gone to all the work of studying and maybe passing the exam, it would destroy my chances of going to university anyway. So I gave up."

The enrollment committee of the Peking Higher Education Bureau said no help was forthcoming, citing the "contradiction between the strong desire of young people to go to university and the present backward situation in China's education." Of 4.6 million youths who took the test last summer, only 270,000 were admitted to universities.

As the examination system has returned, so have stories in the official press of intricate attempts to cheat. Ma Lianpao, a county party secretary in Hebei, had medicine sent to the hall where his daughter was taking the exam. When the girl was called out to receive the medicine, Ma arranged for her to receive answers to some of the questions.

In a district of Guizhou Province, one exam proctor, Huang Huazhen, considered his access to the examination room an excellent way to trade for favors. He served as a courier for several students who requested answers from a skilled and knowledgeable accomplice waiting outside the examination room.

In some ways, this perhaps was only a variant of what went on in the college enrollment system before examinations were reintroduced. In the last years of Chairman Mao, the government stressed ideological rectitude. Young peasants and workers who had worked with particular zeal and enthusiasm were supposed to be given preference over intellectual youths with good grades.

Then as now, peasant youths were handicapped by their poorly equipped elementary schools and the scarcity of senior middle schools in rural areas. Most urban youths can find a senior middle school to attend, giving them an enormous advantage in preparing for college. Last fall, only 34 percent of the freshmen at Peking University, China's premier college, were from families of workers and peasants, even though these groups probably represent 90 percent of the population.

University of California professor Susan Shirk suggests the situation may not have been better for peasants even before Mao's death, when corruption and favoritism intruded.

"The recommendation process was designed to favor peasants and workers, but it operated to the advantage of officials and their children," she said. "For example, production units recommended for college admission the son (but rarely the daughter) of the unit leader. In the absence of entrance examinations, high officials could more easily exploit their connections and get their children into college . . . University professors have reported that there were more children of workers and peasants enrolled in their departments before the Cultural Revolution than afterward."

The Chinese call this "going in the back door," referring not only to favoritism in college admissions, but to all sorts of amiable corruption that helps lubricate China's creaky system for delivery of goods and services. A grocery clerk will trade a few chickens hidden in the back of his store for some bottles of cold medicine offered by a friend who works in a hospital. A music teacher will trade free piano lessons for a few hard-to-get movie tickets from her friend the theater usher.

This gray-market trading is relatively innocuous in most instances, but in education it touches on the most cricitcal moment of a young person's life. Entrance into college, at least 10 times more difficult than in the United States, virtually guarantees a life of relative comfort in the cities. Outrage among young people and their parents at abuses in entrance procedures thus have become serious and widespread.

According to review materials for the 1977 college entrance examination published by Guangdong Province, the twists and turns of Chinese politics weigh heavy on the prospective students.

The sample questions include required explanations of such ideological questions as "the principle contradiction and the secondary contradiction, the antagonistic contradiction and the nonantagonistic contradiction, the two aspects of a contradiction that transform themselves into each other under certain conditions."

Under the heading "scientific socialism," students are asked to defend the proposition that "capitalism is bound to perish, communism bound to win. The proletariat is the grave digger of the capitalist system."

But the bulk of the test focuses on the chief obsession of China for the 1980s -- science and mathematics.

Linmei saw the review outline in the fall of 1977, before her ultimate failure, and her heart sank. She was working nine hours a day on her commune, living in a 10 by 6 foot dormitory room with three other girls. "The books we had were old texts published before the Cultural Revolution," she said. "Some we borrowed from our old schools, or from each other. Some my sisters sent me from Hong Kong."

About 300 young people crammed into classrooms at Linmei's commune elementary schools for the December 1977 test. Of the 10 people in Linmei's brigade who tried their luck, only one would get a university place.

Word of success or failure came back to the applicants in deceptively casual ways. No lists were posted. A unit leader would stop a successful candidate during the day to pass on the news. The lucky ones eventually would get notices to report for medical exams.

In some cases, students with high scores were not allowed to enter college, for political reasons that still haunt the Chinese merit system despite all government assurances.

Some workers on a Guangxi farm were children of high officials.

'They heard that the exam was coming up as early as six months before is was announced, so they left the farm to go back home and study," said one young worker. "They did not need to give any excuse to the farm leader."

At home in the city, some got special tutoring from people hired by their parents.

"Some of the units of the parents even sent people out to the commune to teach the children of leaders of those units," the youth said. "For instance, an Air Force unit sent teachers out to help some students from Air Force families with their English."

Feng Meiguan and his wife, Longyun, read about the upcoming exam in the newspaper, and wondered what to do. Feng was a 1967 senior middle school graduate, part of the great unlucky mass who graduated from the Chinese equivalent of American high school in the first wave of the Cultural Revolution. The political turmoil had closed all the universities. Even if he had been able to take an entrance exam then, there would have been no colleges for him to enter.

After a year or two of wandering around the country, engaging in demonstrations and "exchanging experience" with other Red Guards, most of the class of 1967 received orders to go work of farms in the countryside. There they stayed.

Both Feng and Longyun, with high school degrees, were entitled to take the new exam, but they had a baby and had to continue making enough work points at their Guangxi commune to feed themselves. Longyun told Feng that he should do the studying for the family. She would pass up the chance to take the exam, and do the field and housework while he studied for the chance to get them all out of the countryside.

Feng had no highly placed relatives to warn him in advance, and had only two months to prepare for the examination after reading the official announcement. He worked his way slowly through what old textbooks he could find. During the examination, the few weeks of undistracted study his wife gave him seemed to pay off. He got a 300 score, out of a possible 500. But his dream, to study literature at Guangxi University, eluded him.

"The quota for people from that class let into the university was lower than for others taking the exam, because the [government] did not want too many older students in the university," said a college teacher familiar with the procedures.

Feng, with wife, baby and a 300 score, could only enroll in a special college for training teachers to work in primary schools. This was near the bottom of his list, but enough perhaps to rescue him from a lifetime of fertilizing rice plants. Perhaps, if he impressed his professors, a job in a fairly large city could be his. CAPTION: Picture 1, Chinese children must study hard to pass the difficult college entrance exam, a five-part, two-day test; Copyright (c) 1979, Sipa Press from Black Star; Picture 2, A young boy at the Tien Yuan commune in Chengtu reads aloud to his class. By Gordon Converse -- The Christian Science Monitor; Picture 3, Young people rush to buy latest books at Canton store. Entry to college promises escape from village to city. By Gordon N. Converse -- The Christian Science Monitor