People's heads are not like leeks. When you cut them off, they will not grow back. If you wrongly cut off a head, you cannot rectify the mistake even if you want to. -- Mao Tse-tung, 1956

In one of history's ironic twists, the new rulers trying to rid China of Mao Tse-tung's influence ended up following the late chairman's prudent counsel in sparing the lives of his widow, Jiang Qing, and her radical collaborators.

The much-debated decision, announced early today, to sentence Jiang Qing to death but defer execution for two years will win little support among a Chinese public badly bruised by the political witch hunts and social turmoil of the Cultural Revolution she helped direct.

But the sentence was not designed for public acceptance. Instead, it seemed aimed at keeping the peace in a ruling Communist Party that includes a sizable bloc still loyal to Mao and the leftist policies he championed until his death in 1976.

The decision is believed to have been promoted in stormy party Central Committee sessions by Mao's political successors, a team of pragmatic veterans led by Deng Xiaoping who have devoted their energies in the past four years to reversing the "Great Helmsman's" economic and political programs.

By avoiding the spectacle of sending the widow of the nation's founding father to the firing squad, Deng's faction apparently hoped to foreclose the possibility of making her a martyr and potential rallying point for a leftist backlash to Deng's moderate policies.

Nearly half of the Communist Party's 38 million members were recruited during the Cultural Revolution when Maoist purity was the chief qualification for membership. Deng is well aware of the risks of rousing opposition to his policies by leftist remnants.

The restrained sentences also set limits for the dozens of upcoming trials involving hundreds of imprisoned leftists outside Peking. Executing Jiang Qing or her nine codefendants could have set off an uncontrollable wave of executions in the provinces and stirred up latent leftist support.

In recent weeks, there have been indications that Deng is having greater difficulties than anticipated in reforming the party along traditional Marxist lines, implementing his pragmatic economic policies and removing Maoist holdovers from influential party ranks.

According to reports circulating last week, Deng was facing resistance in the government, Army and party to his efforts to replace Mao's hand-picked successor, Communist Party Chairman Hua Guofeng, with one of Deng's proteges, party General Secretary Hu Yaobang.

Hoping to maintain stability amid political flux, the Deng adherents are said to have argued for the least inflammatory end for Jiang Qing, her Gang of Four confederates and five one-time top military leaders who were convicted of persecuting hundreds of thousands of people, hounding thousands to death, and plotting to seize power and assassinate Mao.

The deferred death sentence for Jiang Qing, the central trial figure, is seen as a compromise struck with party leaders who fought to execute China's former first lady. During the trial she regularly defied and cursed the judges, laughed off charges against her and ended her testimony last month with cries of "It is right to rebel" and "I am prepared to die."

Even when she received the sentence this morning, lined up behind a high metal railing with her nine radical associates, Jiang Qing screamed at the judges and had to be forcibly evicted in handcuffs, struggling with at least four bailiffs, according to a television broadcast tonight.

Throughout the 39-day trial, Jiang Qing insisted on her innocence, claiming she merely followed the orders of her husband, who inspired the Cultural Revolution in 1966 as a way to inject life into the party and engineered the campaign for much of its 10-year span.

Her defense forced the party to conduct its first public evaluation of Mao's role in the chaotic decade -- an assessment party leaders have gingerly sidestepped for fear of reawakening the strong Maoist following of people who identify him with the communist state.

The touchy problem was handled at the trial by ascribing limited blame to Mao. In the official press and in closing arguments by the prosecutor, Mao was accused of making "mistakes" during the Cultural Revolution. It was stressed, however, that his mistakes were not as serious as the "counterrevolutionary crimes" committed by his widow.

The limited-blame approach is believed to have encountered opposition during the 26 days of debate by the Central Committee that delayed sentencing until today. According to reliable sources, trial judges originally sought to criticize Mao for more than "mistakes."

In the end, however, pro-Mao party leaders apparently prevailed in removing him from all culpability. Excerpts of the 14,000-word verdict published by the official New China News Agency make no reference to Mao and conclude instead that his widow was responsible for all crimes of the Cultural Revolution.