Jiang Qing, Mao Tse-tung's widow and the former first lady of China's Cultural Revolution, remained unrepetant at her trial today, indifferently professing ignornace of the charges against her.

In her first chance to publicaly confess or defend herself since her 1976 arrest with other members of the radical Gang of Four, she sat calmly in the barred defendant's box, impassively listening to the charges and shrugging off questions with a stock reply -- "I don't know."

Her stately mien and haughty air, contrasting sharply with the almost whimpering confessions of several of her once-powerful codefendants earlier this week, seemed to jar the trial's chief judge and many of the specially invited spectators.

"Hmph! Don't know?" Judge Jiang Hua, himself persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, shot back at one point.

"Don't know?" echoed several disbelieving courtroom observers.

"So, the accused, Jiang Qing, has refused to confess," the judge said during the nationally televised trial scene. "But the facts are in the file. There is enough evidence to prove that Jiang Qing and her gang made false accusations against [top Chinese officials]."

For some China watchers, the courtroom drama was a virtuoso performance by the onetime film actress who personally guided millions of Red Guard fanatics in their harassment of Chinese officials and ordinary citizens during the violent Cultural Revolution, blamed for thousands of deaths from 1966 to 1976.

As a skilled politician, who became one of the world's most powerful women, Jiang Qing is said to be determined not to make it easy for China's new, modern rulers to convict her along with the radical precepts of the Cultural Revolution that she extolled for so long.

Jiang Qing's studied silence, however, also was seen as a sign that China's first show trial will stop short of blackening the memory of Mao, who inspired the Cultural Revolution in the hope of revitalizing a Communist Party that he felt had grown conservative and bureaucratic during the years.

It has been an open question here how China's new leaders could prosecute Mao's radical followers without touching upon Mao.

Although current leaders believe that a total denunciation of the radial era is vital for China's recovery and growth, they apparently have decided to avoid embarrassing attacks against Mao that could result in a destabilizing backlash among the large number of his supporters in government and the countryside.

That strategy is believe by Western diplomats to be the reason for Jiang Qing's courtroom restraint today. In the months leading up to the trial, she reportedly told prosecutors that she was merely carrying out Mao's orders throughout the Cultural Revolution and she would use that argument as her defense.

The fact that she failed under questioning to cite Mao in testimony today indicates to diplomats that she may have dropped her defense as part of an agreement with the government to spare her the death sentence. The observers caution, however, that it is still too early to make such a judgment with certainty.

Whatever the reason, Jiang Qing's defiance came at an especially sensitive time. For the past three days the 35-member judicial panel has aired charges that in 1974 the Gang of Four maligned Deng Xiaoping, China's foremost leader today, to block his promotion to first vice premier.

Jiang Qing, according to earlier testimony, convened her fellow radicals in October, 1974 to plot strategy against Deng. After the meeting, one of her associates visited Mao at his home in Changsha and suggested that Deng was scheming to seize power and was having clandestine contacts with the late premier Chou En-lai.

Deng, who was purged in 1966, and restored to power in 1973, had been building strength within the party and bureaucracy to neutralize the leftists led by Jiang Qing. He was eventually ousted a second time in April 1976 after the leftists falsely blamed him for a riot at Tienanmen Square.

Today, two days after a pair of her radical confederates gave details of the 1974 plot to frame Deng, Jiang Qing, 67, confidently strode into the vast chamber, wearing a charcoal-gray Mao suit, her black hair pulled back in the fashion she popularized during the Cultural Revolution.

Resting in the high-backed defendant's chair, she stared straight ahead and tilted her head to the right to hear the judge's first question: Did she call together the gang members to plot against Deng?

"Not so," she replied.

"No?" queried the judge.

"I don't know," she added.

Undeterred, the judge asked a second question. "What did you four talk about?"

"I know nothing," she replied. "How am I supposed to know what was talked about?"

Jiang Qing's reluctance to confess presents a legal dilemma for the Chinese judicial system because a criminal is usually expected to admit crimes to prove guilt. From a political standpoint, her confession also would place a tighter seal on the Cultural Revolution.

The start of the trial had been delayed for more than a month because Jiang Qing and another defendant had refused to confess their guilt, according to Chinese officials. However, a leading legal scholar may have provided a solution for the problem when he was quoted in a People's Daily newspaper article saying that under China's new criminal code, confession is not necessary for conviction.

The lawyer said defendant's "crimes are proved by the evidence that cannot be denied." He added in the article that if defendants's "indulge in sophistry, act shamelessly or refuse to say anything," the court has the power to order them to be quiet or to be taken from the courtroom.