With his family hungry, his pigs dying and his well going dry, Liu Dade still musters the energy every morning to plow the village wheat field, curse the pale blue north China sky and pray for a little rain to relieve the parched earth.

In this poor, unirrigated corner of Hebei Province about 200 miles south of Peking, Liu has performed the same ritual for 20 months without results, watching the once fertile land that fed his family gradually dry up. Hoping for rain, he said, has become "like waiting for a rare guest."

Like millions of other peasants, Liu is waiting out the worst drought to hit northern China in 38 years -- a disaster so devastating to the local economy and people that Peking has asked for international assistance for the first time since the Communist takeover in 1949.

In Hebei Province, which has suffered the harshest effects, local officials say 14 million peansants -- and almost a third of the population -- are subsisting on insufficient government grain rations. At least two million children are said to suffer serious malnutrition, with large numbers suffering from anemia, hepatitis and rickets.

Much of the vast southern Hebei plain that once served a China's grain basket has turned into a near-desert, covered with withered corn stalks, wheat and cotton plants.Officials say the drought has cost more than $1 billion in agricultural losses. Thousands of pigs, cows and sheep have dropped dead. More than 165,000 acres of saplings have perished.

Half the province's wells have gone dry, forcing villagers to travel miles to fetch drinking water from government water tanks. Underground water levels have dropped more than 35 feet in some places and nearly all of Hebei's 600 rivers have evaporated to less than half their normal contents.

At gang Nan Reservoir, the largest supplier of water in southeast Hebei, the water has drained so low -- a quarter of the normal level -- that peasants fish from sand bars that have surfaced in the center of the vast pool. Gang Nan closed its valves this week, leaving just one reservoir still operating in the province's southeast quarter.

"Hebei is one of those sleeping giants," said an international relief official who recently visited the province. "Nobody's dying of starvation now. But wait for malnutrition to really get to the people. It's a slow kind of death."

Despite the massive economic losses and human misery in a province with a population almost as large as France's, Peking kept the drought a secret until the government broke with past policy last December and asked the United Nations for help. Provincial officials estimate they will need more than $1 billion in aid.

Traditionally, China has concealed its problems from world view, apparently considering them signs of vulnerability or national weakness. Even during the worst of disasters, such as the 1976 earthquake that leveled the city of Tangshan, Peking has shunned international assistance, preferring to rely on its own resources.

This year, however, the nation's resources are stretched thinner than ever. With a huge budget deficit for the second straight year, double-digit inflation and 20 million unemployed, Peking has adopted a stringent auserity program that contains little for disaster relief or further grain imports to compensate for poor harvests.

Moreover, the Hebei drought is just one of the natural disasters facing the nation. In the southern province of Hebei, millions of peasants are still homeless and without food as result of violent flooding there last year. As many as 20 million people are said to be living on government rations.

Although the flooded areas of southern China have begun to stabilize, relief officials said, problems of the drought-stricken north may even get worse. In Hebei, which has gone without appreciable rainfall since July 1979, weather forecasters offer little hope of relief during this summer's rainy season.

In Liu Dade's village 35 miles from the provincial capital of Shijiazhang, peasants return to the wheat field every day, turning over the hard brown soil with their antique plows and rakes as if they were preparing the soil for spring planting.

But this spring there will be no spring planting, said Liu. The villagers simply will be trying to keep the earth from petrifying.

"We used to have plenty of water," he said, pointing to the bone-dry irrigation ditch slicing across the hilly field. "Now everything dies."

For Liu's family, the drought means more than empty fields. Smaller harvests in the past two years have taken food off the dinner table -- more than a pound of grain a day. Two of the family's four prize pigs have died. The well has to be sunk deeper to provide drinking water. The six children, weaker from grain shortages, keep coming down with viruses.

Despite Liu's difficulties, life in Pingshan County compares favorably to more seriously stricken portions of Hebei. Within a few miles of Pingshan, irrigated fields still produce large quantities of vegetables that can be bought for a few cents at village free markets. Although drinking water is limited in quantity, it can still be obtained in nearby deep wells.

About 100 miles southeast of Pingshan, in Hengshui District, the drought has left its deepest scars. In that area, which is off-limits to foreigners, almost everyone lives on meager government rations of less than a pound of corn meal a day containing 1,500 calories, or about half the daily minimum requirement, provincial officials said.

Receiving just a fraction of their vitamin and protein needs, a large percentage of Hengshui's children are suffering from malnutrition, said Dr. Zi Weilian, vice chief of Hebei's medical bureau. Most of the children, he said, are pale, listless and seriously underweight.

As many as a third of the children tested in Hengshui have rickets, which is caused by a deficiency of vitamin D, said Zi. Some have already developed bowed legs typical of advanced stages of the disease, he said.

"We're worried that a long period of drought will cause adnormal growth that can never be mended," the physician said. "Long-term malnutrition will retard a child's mental and physical development."

While the adult population of Hengshui is surviving better than the children, Zi said, one of every three mothers who have just given birth lack breast milk to feed their infants. About half the babies are born weighing less than normal, he said, although the drought has not appreciably increased infant mortality.

Infectious diseases, such as hepatitis, also are prevalent, presenting the greatest danger to a population weakened by malnutrition. Poor sanitation caused by the lack of water for washing increases the chance of a serious epidemic, said Zi, as does the common practice in the drought area of drinking water from dirty ditches.

China's $1 billion request for assistance includes $40 million for medical care, much of it to be spent on 80 million vitamin pills, which Zi said are needed to help two million children suffering from the worst cases of malnutrition. Last week, the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund delivered 35 million vitamin pills to Peking for distribution in Hebei and Hubei provinces.

Hebei's shopping list also includes requests for over a million tons of grain that officials say is necessary to feed a hungry population and livestock during the next six months, as well as seed, cooking oil, clothing and money to pay for the sinking of deeper wells.

Three U.N. relief teams visited Hebei and flooded Hubei in December and January and came up with a more conservative estimate of needs for the two provinces -- $700 million. Their report is being circulated among wealthy donor nations, including the United States.

Yang Lin, an agricultural official in Hebei, said the world body is the court of last resort for his province. After spending about $300 million on relief, China's central government has indicated it can afford no more, he said, and there is little that can be achieved by the peasants themselves.

"Chinese people have a tradition of facing difficulties," said Yang. "We are hoping for international support to make these difficulties easier to overcome."