Fuhua was slim, attractive and had a husband on Army duty far from their home in southern Hunan. A slow-witted village boy, his green, baggy uniform with the red collar tabs nonetheless had given him a certain allure, at least for Fuhua's parents.

They knew the Communist Party always took care of the soldiers of the People's Liberation Army and their families.

Yanlong, one of Fuhua's fellow officials in the production brigade, radiated earnestness and some intellectual ambitions. His own young wife could not live with him yet. Her family had insisted she reamin in her home village for another year of work in the rice fields because her father said, "We need the harvest shares."

When the local school children found Fuhua and Yanlong making love in the village canteen kitchen, the news shocked and titillated the conservative villagers. Underneath, there was a bit of sympathy. It was a pity, people said, that the two young people suffered because of the bad decisions of their parents. But they could not go unpunished.

Over the last three decades, Chinese marriage customs have changed at least as much as those in the West. New divorce laws, government-dictated separations and some meager but tantalizing personal freedoms, have seriously shaken the institution.

But China remains a fundamentally conservative society on such matters. Marriage and family are the rocks on which Chinese society stands, with or without the Communist Party.

Their indiscretion was noted on Fuhua and Yanlong's personal records, a step that would affect their salaries and career choices for the rest of their lives. Both were transferred to other work. When Fuhua's soldier husband came home, he demanded a divorce. "If the husband had learned of the affair while he was still in the army," a friend of Fuhua's said, "Yanlong could have faced criminal charges of sabotaging the military."

"Who was to blame? Maybe just the circumstances," she said. "The parents perhaps should not have interfered so much in the plans to marry."

The Chinese have come a long way from the days, not so many decades ago, when nearly all marriages were arranged by the parents. But the parents still maintain a veto. Their eldest son invariably will continue to live with them after his marriage. A new marriage becomes not a private agreement between two young people, but part of the village web of relationships, what the Chinese call guanxi. The approval of parents and neighbors becomes enormously important at the beginning of the marriage and, if need be, at the end of it.

Lengthy and serious negotations take place between families before a marriage is decided upon. In most cases, the groom's family pays the bride's family something for the privilege of her hand in marriage and the welcome addition of her strong back to the family labor force.

Once these bargains have been sealed, marriage becomes an almost feudal amalgam of two families. Westerners often are stunned at the social pressure this puts on the couple when a relationship begins to unravel. Every village seems to have a tale of such pressures producing sudden and often inexplicable violence.

In an Anhui community, a long-married couple with four healthy, bright children saw their lives fall apart when the wife had an affair with a Communist Party official. In the atmosphere of that small community, committed to family life and offering little chance for escape, it was a serious mistake. The woman took an easy way out by committing suicide. Her husband could not take care of all the children, and had to send some to relatives.

Marriage customs may in some ways be the most changed, and in other ways the most resilient, of all the social practices the communists promised to sweep away in 1949.

The government outlawed, apparently with great success, bigamy, concubinage and the old Confucian ban on remarriage of widows. It required that marriages be registered, and that women be allowed to retain their own surnames and have equal rights in property and inheritance.

Less successfully, it prohibited payment of money and goods as a condition of marriage and said marriage had to be the decision of the couple involved, with no parental compulsion. Divorce with mutal consent was made available on demand from a government office and many unhappy couples took advantage of this for a while. If only one spouse demanded a divorce, the local court still was directed to issue it if reconciliation efforts failed.

The minimum marriage age was 18 for women and 20 for men. As population control became more important, particularly after 1972, the party began issuing orders raising the minimum age to at least 23 for women and 25 for men in the countryside.

But no matter what the party has said, in courtship and marriage the Chinese still appear to be very confident of their own instincts.

Over the past three years, I've asked about 100 chinese how they got married. Most of these are city dwellers who say they found their own marriage partners themselves, usually at a university or in their government offices. But their cousins in the countryside say they have usually relied on introductions by relatives living in different, but not too distant, villages. In nearly all rural cases, and in many instances in the city, the parents have been actively involved.

Chinese parents, from party members on down, see no harm in trying to arrange romances between their children and children from families with unusual advantages. "Party or government officials in the countryside have great personal influence even if they might be relatively poor," one former country dweller said. "They will try to take advantage of this by marrying their children to children from larger families that earn unusual numbers of work points (harvest shares). It's a political and an economic connection."

The Chinese say about choosing a mate: "The doors and windows should match." Compatibility must include not only the young people themselves, but their whole families. To ensure proper matches, peasant families throughout China go through a series of rituals that in Western cultures might be considered just this side of an outrageous invasion of privacy.

If the prospective couple know each other and have made a tentative commitment, or like other at an introductory meeting, their parents take over. Here enters an old feudal custom that has prospered under communism -- the bride price.

"It's not a secret in the village, though also not something you will generally ask about. But everybody with a son pays a bride price. In our village, it was about $69 to $120," one former village youth said.

The bride-to-be's father ususally opens negotiations. He gives the groom's family a list of required items, including in some arcas, liping, or wedding cakes sent out to announce the match, plus the bride's clothing, special food items, jewelry and cash. The groom's father knocks a few items off the list, and a bargain is sealed.

"Would party officials join in such negotiations?" I asked several village residents. "Only if they wanted their sons to be married," they said.

At the same time, the bride's family is invited to visit the groom's village. Often they chat with neighbors about the reputation and financial condition of the people who want to take away their little girl. "Many times the bride's family will invite the groom's people to dinner," one Guangdong native said."I attended a meal where the groom's parents then went over the house stem to stern, even measured by eye the family grain reserves."

The practice can be abused. Paisung, a young man from the famous wine-growing county of Shaoxing in Chekiang, said he was forced to pay $300 just for the privilege of an engagement. The marriage cost another $600. The bride's family demanded: $8 for every year of her life up to then; six jars of old wine; eight suits of clothes, including three of wool; $7 for the bride's great-grandmother; a gold ring and earrings and the cost of a huge feast.

"She asked me to break off the engagement several times when she saw I couln't meet all the demands," the man told the local party newspaper. "There was nothing I could do about it and we finally broke off."

The government has learned to bide its time in trying to change marriage customs. The peasants themselves like the color and excitement of a wedding feast, and they know that whatever they must pay to marry off a son, they will get it back from the parents of the boy who marries their daughter. "Sometimes families just exchange daughter for son and vice versa, and no money changes hands," one peasant said.

Whether North China or south, a feast is in order on the wedding day. "The size depends on how rich the family is," said a young man from rural Fujian. "The biggest I saw was a two-day feast, a total of four dinners. That family invited the whole village to attend, but usually people have only two dinners, and the poorest people just one. That wealthy family had money because there were nine people in it who could work. They had the feast in the meeting hall of the production team, rather than in the home as most do."

The young man was asked if the party officials in the village objected to the extravagance. He laughed. "They were at the top of the guest list."

The wedding itself followed a pattern for both rich and poor. "The groom and several of his brothers and cousins and some friends headed for the bride's home. They had drums and music makers and an artificial lion costume. They walked -- it was close enough -- buy many times the bride is in another village so they'll use bikes or a hand tractor borrowed from the production team."

The noisy procession stopped at the bride's front door, which was closed and guarded by a pack of giggling sisters and cousins. "Sorry, sorry, no entry," the young women shouted, through fits of laughter. The lion growled at them a bit, setting off more giggles.

"They waited for cigarettes. That's the custom. They'll keep the door shut until the boys produce maybe three or four dozen packs of cigarettes, the better brands, Qunying or Yeshu, about 30 cents a pack."

The cigarettes appeared. The door opened. The young men stepped warily across the threshold, knowing other dangers lurked within. A water bucked cascaded down from the ceiling, soaking the first intruder. A few smaller cousins, laughing merrily, attacked the rest of the raiding party with sticks.

The bride was there, dressed in her best dark slacks and jacket. She surrendered herself up to the groom and his escort party. Outside, some of the boys set off a string of firecrackers. In front of the door, a middle aged woman of the village with "rich experience" -- many children -- observed an essential ritual by sprinkling rice outside the door and leading the bride out by the hand.

All returned to the groom's house, a low, white-washed brick building, and then to the meeting hall for a dinner. In the fine tradition of wedding banquets everywhere, the party became more raucous as the day wore on.

The couple began with an ancient, simple rite. They bowed to a picture of the late Chairman Mao (some families also have the new chairman, Hua Guofeng, on the wall), to the parents of the groom, and to each other. The bride served tea to her husband's parents and to the other elders of the family. Then the fun began.

The guests sought to embarrass the couple thoroughly with lengthy and inspired interrogation and demands, rendered all the more excruciating by the instinctive public reserve of most Chinese. A piece of fruit was placed in the middle of a toothpick. Bride and groom were ordered to grasp opposite ends in their mouths and devour the fruit together. "Then we gave them one cigarette, had them put opposite ends in their mouths and some one lit the middle of it," a neighbor recalled.

Among some urban couples, it recently has become fashionable to dispense with a big celebration and have what is called a "travelling wedding," essentially a honeymoon.

Like American families, Chinese families seem to grow more slowly than in the past, particularly in cities where both husband and wife work in offices or factories and childbearing is carefully regulated.

In the countryside, despite grandmother pressure, children may be a bit slow in coming through difficulties imposed by the deep peasant puritanism. But as the rituals of marriage, and the careful consideration of family ties have been preserved, the little fertility rites like rice sprinkled on the ground support the old peasant notion of the more offspring the better, despite official displeasure with the idea.