Dulong and Meisong liked their lives and their marriage in that summer of 1957. They had five healthy children, aged 7 to 13. They had good jobs. To their minds, the coming of the Communist Party to their city, Canton, eight years before had been a blessing.

A small event at Dulong's factory that summer did not seem worth much concern, although it was about to tear their lives apart.

The printing plant where Dulong worked as an accountant had begun to encourage comrades to put up wallposter critiques about anything they thought needed changing. The idea sounded to many like little more than an office suggestion box. Chairman Mao Tse-tung in Peking had called for an outpouring of dissenting opinions, for a "hundred flowers to bloom." So Dulong wrote a wallposter:

"The gap between the government and the people is growing wider and wider. It is very dangerous for the country as well as the people if the bureaucracy continues to grow the way it has."

Within a few weeks, Dulong has lost his job and been ordered to leave Canton. He could no longer live with his family. His marriage was in disarray. It was litle comfort to him, but hundreds of thousands of other earnest critics in China had suffered a similar fate, the beginning of 20 years of political and economic upheaval that would dim the joy of millions of family-loving Chinese. The revolution required sacrifice. People had to be transferred, deadwood cleared out, malcontents reeducated. Husbands and wives would have to adjust.

A local Communist Party official came to see Meisong. She must expose her husband and his terrible mistake, the official said. Any good citizen would do the same, particularly one concerned about her children and the lesson they must learn from this experience.

"She really believed that my father had made some mistakes and did something wrong," one of their sons said later. "She thought the punishment was necessary and correct. It would be good for him. But my father insisted he was right. He said he had not done anything wrong."

Dulong was sent to a collective farm 60 miles from Canton. It was better than the mines, or the work camps reserved for the worst counter-revolutionaries. Unlike those unfortunates, Dulong could visit his family once a year or so. "But it wasn't much of a marriage after that," his son said.

Since the difficult days of the late 1950s, fewer husbands or wives in China have been permanently banished to the countryside against their will for political offenses. But spouses continue to be separated in large numbers by the demands of their jobs -- in some cases willingly, in other cases not.

At Xiangyang village outside Wuhan, peasants told me that one third of the husbands worked in the city and only visited their families once or twice a month. Visitors to some other rural villages report similar proportions of families living apart, although the Chinese have released no overall statistics on the problem other than to say millions are affected.

Having lived with the policy for so long, most Chinese try to cope with it as best they can, and many have accepted the separations willingly as a necessary sacrifice for the revolution.

The most severely affected marriages are those between college students, who often are given assignments far from their university towns after graduation. Also in recent years, many men with city jobs, unable to find a wife in town, have married rural women, but have been unable to bring them to the city because of severe restrictions on urban growth.

Small signs are posted along Sun Yatsen Avenue in Wuhan, near the Liberation monument in Ghongqing, along East Wind road in Kunming, at Wangfujing Street in Peking and at nearly every other big city gathering spot I have seen in China. Many are nothing more than perforated, lined sheets torn out of note books, Each has at the top two horizontal arrows pointing in opposite directions. The appeals written below ask if anyone in that city wants to trade jobs. They are written by men or women stuck in remote factory towns who have wives or husbands living in the bigger cities .

Duli and Meihua met and fell in love while attending Shanghai's Fudan University. They looked forward to a long and happy married life pursuing their careers as engineers. Then Duli was transferred in 1969 to a commune in Guangdong Province, 600 miles to the south. He only managed to win a short vacation to return to Shanghai and marry Meihua, assigned to a factory in that city.

For the next seven years, before he finally fled to Hong Kong, Duli never saw his wife for more than a month each year. They got that much time only by exaggerating the seriousness of Duli's mild case of hepatitis. Even when the couple produced a son, Duli's appeals to be reassigned to Shanghai fell on deaf ears.

Such stories, repeated often in conversations with Chinese about their family situations, indicate how extraordinary a holiday is the late January-early February Chinese New Year, or what the Communists prefer to call Spring Festival. It is the time when separated couples can reunite, usually for two weeks. Families serve meat, ignore work and allow other indulgences. It is a celebration with an emotional force and sentimental vibration far below the eagerly anticipated Christmas holidays in the United States.

Family dislocation in the United States on this scale would lead to reams of learned sociological and psychological studies on its impact on divorce rates and the emotional development of children. The Chinese, however, have only recently reestablished sociological and psychological research, and read Freud, they say, only to be able to point out what they see as his irredeemable flaws. They have done no known studies on families hurt by separations. Instead, the government, in one more example of giving in to the traditional Chinese way, is depending on the extended family, the old system of active grandmothers, to tide over families suffering such destress.

A young mother with a lively four-year-old boy, living in Shanghai, had been transferred along with her factory to Anhui, another province. She told a group of American child care specialists led by Yale professor William Kessen that there were no vacancies in the kindergarten at her new home, so she left her child in Shanghai.

When the Amerian met her, the young mother was on a rare one-month vacation in Shanghai. She had not seen her husband and son in six months. Of he boy she said: "During the daytime, his grandmother looks after him; at night his father." She admitted she and her mother would sometimes clash over how to treat the child.

The woman did not say how the separation had affected her relationship with her husband. This is an area that Westerners, with different notions of privacy and romance, find difficult to probe or understand.

When Chinese describe their marriages, they seem less dependent on regular, intimate contact. It is as if the partners understood, before even sealing their relationship, that overcrowding and arbitrary government decisions would afford them little pesonal time together, and that they ought to accept a buffer against such hurts, some kind of emotional distance.

This quality of personal reserve in Chinese marriages seems more evident in the countryside than in the cities. Village couples walking together proceed with one partner in front, one behind, rarely side-by-side, and never hand-in-hand.

Like most traditional societies, China for centuries demanded strict female obedience to husbands. The Communists' Marriage Law of 1950 was supposed to change that. At the beginning, they gathered women together to discuss the ways they had been abused under the old society.

In urban families, more husbands now share housework, cleaning and cooking chores, although this is still far from the rule for most city dwellers. A writer for the official magazine China Reconstructs described the reaction of neighbors when a model male worker in the large northeastern city of Jilin took over his wife's houswork chores: "Many people laughed at him. A man could lose face doing this."

Despite family separations, despite couples' reluctance or inability to spend much time alone together, despite the lack of privacy, Chinese say their marriages rarely break up. The demands of work, of community responsibility, press down on Chinese individuals to a remarkable degree. They seem to keep many marriages stabel, but crush those people who cannot cope.

It is nearly always the woman who presses for a divorce in China -- another ironic signal of how important women have become. The man doesn't want to lose the "investment" of his bride price, nor accept the stigma of initiating the divorce, which in China often is more important than who was to blame for souring the marriage. It is also more difficult for a man to find a new wife in modern China, particularly in the circumstances that often break up Chinese marriages. People who have lived in Chinese villages say money and food often intrude. If a spouse is eating too much, or it the husband is too lazy to earn enough work points, or if his parents were not as well-off in surplus grain and equipment as she was led to believe, the woman sometimes will seek a divorce in order to find a more economically secure and trustworthy partner.

In other cases, political trouble destroys emotional bonds, particularly when a spouse is demoted or sent away to a work camp for voicing the wrong ideological line. Marriages also encounter sexual problems, and all the other abuses of marital life, such as drinking, gambling and wife beating.

In the villages on idle evenings and Sundays -- what few of them there are -- men and women usually go their separate ways.

"The men usually prefer to go off and talk with other men, rather than with their wives," said one peasant. "In my village, the older men just talk, the younger men play poker." Such pasttimes can become bad habits.

Rural officials complain of trouble getting their evening meetings started on time. Often, on occasions such as discussions of next year's crop, women will not attend at all, leaving such matters to the men, who usually supervise field work.

Village men will often drift into one of the larger homes for long talks with tea. Women will do the same, taking knitting and small children over to a neighbor's home for a long chat, the favorite Chinese pastime. A few villages close to cities, with good incomes from the sale of vegetables to city folk, can afford to build common rooms. If the brigade has a television set, many people can be found watching it in the early evening or on Saturday. s

In a village of northern Guangdong, a middle-aged farmer with four children dealt himself into the evening card games that had become an obsession for many men in this small community. There was little cash to play for. The farmer wagered the wood and bricks holding up the house he lived in, then the bricks he used for flooring.

"Finally, he bet and lost the bed for his children, and the bed he and his wife slept on. When the wife complained, he beat her, rather regularly," a neighbor said. The local party officials did not intervene. Some of them were playing in the same card game.

Pleasants from all regions of the country confirm this basic reluctance of officials, party or police, to intrude even in violent domestic quarrels, and an equal reluctance of Chinese families to seek official help. To the Chinese, these are family matters for several centuries considered outside the law, despite modern efforts to enforce party policy even in the marriage bed in matters concerning birth control.

"In the end, the wife just ran off with the children," a neighbor of the troubled Guangdong couple said. "The husband ended up roaming the streets, trying to pick up vegetables or other food that had been thrown away." CAPTION: Picture 1, The Chinese spend lots of time on trains, traveling from job to see families from whom they are often separated for long periods of time. By Joan Lebold Cohen; Picture 2, Ho Chian-chung is a worker who sees his family on short visits twice a year.; Copyright (c) 1979. By Norman Webster -- The Globe and Mail