The communist press today for the first time directly blamed the late chairman Mao Tse-tung for the excess of the Cultural Revolution, accusing him of mistakes that caused "very great misfortunes" for China's people and ruling party.

In what is believed to be the harshest official criticism of Mao to reach a Chinese audience, the People's Daily said in a front-page commentary that Mao had erred in inspiring and steering the chaotic political movement from 1966 to 1976.

The article stressed, however, that Mao's mistakes should be distinguished from the "counter-revolutionary crimes" committed by 10 of his disciples, including his widow, who have been on trial in Peking for more than a month.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors have delicately maneuvered to expose the alleged crimes of the 10 radicals without implicating Mao, whose slogans and directives served as the battle cry for the Cultural Revolution.

Today's commentary the sticky question of dealing with Mao's obviously important role in the Cultural Revolution without soiling his reputation among the millons of Chinese who still identify him as the first great leader of the ruling Communist Party.

Another likely aim of the article, diplomatic sources said, was to blunt what is expected to be the final trial defense of Mao's widow, Jiang Qing, who is known as the ringleader of the radical so-called Gang of Four. Sources believe she will claim merely to have followed her husband's orders.

Apparently anticipating that argument, the People's Daily tried to limit Mao's culpability while separating him from the activities of his wife and her associates. At one point, the article said that Jiang operated "secretly from upper levels."

Nothing that the type of mistake committed by Mao was often "unavoidable" among well-meaning party leaders, the newspaper concluded that the persecutions and plots allegedly committed by Jiang and her confederates were unpardonable.

Dealing with Mao's memory has been a consuming problem for the pragmatic men who have ruled China since his death four years ago. While reversing almost all of Mao's leftist policies, they have done little to upset his place in the hearts of the average Chinese.

Although some current leaders, including party General Secretary Hu Yaobang, have criticized Mao in interviews with foreign correspondents, relatively little of such challenging statements have reached Chinese citizens.

Within China's vast party and state bureaucracy, however, the current Peking leadership has steadily sought to get rid of Maoist loyalists who gained their positions during the Cultural Revolution.

From that perspective, today's People's Daily commentary takes on a different significance. Diplomatic observers believe it signals the beginning of another phase in the purge of Maoists in the party and government.

Party Chairman Hua Guofeng, Mao's handpicked successor, has already vanished from public view for several weeks amid widespread reports that he will resign his post as early as next month and no later than the party congress scheduled for this spring.

Hua, sources said, is seen by the pragmatists as a possible magnet for the large numbers of Maoists still in the middle levels of the government and party who are well positioned to sabotage any new economic programs that turn Mao's principles upside down.

More than half of the party's 38 million members joined during the Cultural Revolution at a time when political correctness was more important than skills.