An American couple, told they had no chance to adopt children in the United States, have astounded officials here by acquiring a 10-month-old Chinese girl from her poor peasant parents despsite a longtime Communist taboo against such adoptions.

"Incredible," said a Chinese Foreign Mnistry official when told the story of English teacher Arthur Tooley, 71, and his wife, Sachi, 29. It is a tale of love, of the bitter fruits of China's harsh birth control campaign and of a Chinese bureaucracy moved to both rage and tears.

Two weeks ago, a matronly administrative judge in a faded, blue work suit signed a paper and smiled at the Tooleys and their new baby. "This is China's gift of friendship to America," she said.

Officials at the U.S. Embassy were so taken aback by the case, the first adoption they knew of in 30 years by a couple of non-Chinese ancestry, that they hesitated to give the baby a visa. Finally, this week they allowed the Tooleys and bright-eyed Ni Qiuye, now renamed Leilani, to leave for the Marshall Islands where Tooley has a new teaching assignment.

The Tooleys appear blessed by naivete and luck. They never seemed to realize that foreign, particularly non-oriental adoptions of Chinese babies had for years been taboo, an embarrassing reminder of the pre-1949 starving Chinese orphans who required foreign care.

But through a web of personal connections, the key to all Chinese miracles, they found a couple whose third daughter was burdening them -- under the new birth control laws -- with a monthly financial penalty.

"I say, to God goes the glory," said Tooley, a specialist in teaching English as a second language. He came here a year ago to work at the Peking Foreign Languages Institute.

A widower, he met Sachi in 1977 on the island of Moen in Truk, part of Micronesia, where he was teaching. They married and fled to the United States when their unconventional match inspired threats from Sachi's fellow Trukese.

they tried to start a family. "sachi and I were both examined and we can't have a baby," Tooley said. Whenthey tried to apply for adoption in Texas, they were told it was impossible "if there was more than 10 years discrepancy in our ages." But Sachi desperately wanted a child.

After arriving in Peking, they began to ask around. "We were told we could go to Thailand and adopt, but we couldn't afford that," said Tooley, whose savings had been exhausted paying for treatment of the cancer that eventually killed his first wife, Winnifred.

A Chinese friend had a daughter who was a doctor in a Shanghai hospital. "He said his daughter would keep her eyes open." Suddenly, in April, the Tooleys got a message that they should travel to Shanghai immediately.

In the room of an American teacher there, the Tooleys met Ni Jianxin, a peasant from Zhuji County in Zhejiang Province, south of Shanghai. He brought his wife, Dai Zahofang, and their third daughter.

Peasant families in China have traditionally continued to bear children until they produced a boy, but a year ago some localities began to charge penalaties to couples who had more than two children.

I think the mother loved the child very much, but it was taking 11 yuan (7.63), out of their incomes each month, a large expense for a Chinese peasant family. . . . They baby had a bad, bad cough. It was bronchial pneumonia. We later had to take her to the hospital, and one of her lungs collapsed. This is a bad thought, but that might have been a way to get rid of the baby, let her die," Tooley said.

Another baby had been available, but its mother vetoed adoption by foreigners. Leilalni's parents "were meek and shy. The mother had a faint smile. The father didn't smile at all. They were nice, though ragged-looking people, tall and slim, so I think Leilani will be tall and slim, too," Tooley said. The parents signed saying they were giving up the baby of their own free will. Tooley gave them $104 to "cover their expenses." b

Then the Tooleys simply got on the train and took the baby back to Peking.

When his supervisors at the institute heard about it, they exploded.

"We kidnaped her, that's what they told us," Tooley said. Xu Caide, the assistant director of the institute's foreign department "really chewed me out. He said I had to get papers, all kinds of stuff I hadn't gotten.

"My institute was so hostile. They even tried to fire me.Then, at four o'clock one morning, Sachi wrote a letter to them. It was in her broken English, but I didn't change a word. She said, 'Please please, let me keep our baby.'

"Xu read it and I could almost see the tears in his eyes. He took it up to the president of the institute and he read it, and after that their attitude completely changed. They went all out for us."

Xu forgot his anger and went back to Shanghai and Zhejiang on his own to visit the natural parents and secure the necessary papers. He got a birth certificate, an agreement from the parents' commune, an agreement from the parents and a witnessed statement.

"He said the mother still loved the child, and I promised to send her a picture of the child each year," Tooley said.

For three days, Xu pushed the paperwork through the nearly impenetratable Peking bureaucracy, then one day asked all three Tooleys to come with him to the Peking Bureau of Notarization.

The administrative judge signed the paper stating in Chinese that the Nis had given their third daughter, born Sept. 28, 1979, to the Tooleys. "You have fulfilleld a dream of ours," Tooley said.

In the Friendship Hotel, the Tooley's home for the past year, the couple prepared to leave China. Sachi was glowing as the Chinese staff passed Leilani around and offered endless advice on child-rearing as Chinese love to do.

The baby was fat, serene, and extremely alert, now up to 22 pounds from her emaciated condition three months ago. She has a good-luck charm from her natural parents, a coin with a hole in it.

"She drank five bottles of milk a day and two cans of juice at the beginning," Tooley said. "Sachi really gave her a lot of tender loving care."

A tall, slow-talking man who has spent much of this career teaching at U.S. government and Seventh Day Adventist schools in the Pacific Islands, Tooley seems pleasantly astonished at the sudden turn in his life.

His first wife died in 1975 after a long bout with lymphatic cancer that forced both of them to stop working.

"They gradually cut her to pieces and then she finally died," he said. When, later, he went to the Truk Islands to teach, "I think I was the most lonesome man on earth. I didn't know anybody. I just taught, went home and cooked dinner. Sachi worked downstairs, taking care of a little boy for a couple." A limp caused by a congenital hip injury made Sachi poor marriage material in the islands.

"We would talk in the yard. After about a year, one day I asked her to come up and have a dish of ice cream with me. I told her I was lonesome. I was looking for a woman who would be with me not for what I could give her but to help me and be a companion.

"Sachi said: '"Maybe that's me'."

After a few months, they got a marriage license, a controversial move on that small lisland. Threats were made, a car swerved at them, a drunken young man pointed a spear at them.

"It might have been my age," Tooley said. They decided to leave and had a wedding ceremony performed in the air byh the pilot of the 727 jet who flew them out of Truk.

Tooley has two daughters from his first marriage and four grandchildren, one of them only five years younger than Sachi. He displayed letters from his daughters saying they were ready to give Sachi and the baby any help they need if he is no longer around.

Tooley looked at his wife, busy with the baby. "our marriage has been happier than I even anticipated myself.I thought the world of my first wife, but I think the same of Sachi. Sometimes Sachi just wakes me up in the middle of the night and says, "Toolely, I love you.'"