China has paid a cash reward of $370,000 to a Taiwanese Air Force major who defected to the mainland last weekend in an American-built reconnaissance plane, Peking radio reported tonight.

The payment apparently is the first since China announced a formal bounty list for defectors in 1978 -- specifying at that time $2 million in gold for any pilot who brought over an F5E. There was no explanation for the apparent short-changing of pilot Huang Zhicheng, who landed an an even more sought-after F5F in southeast China Saturday.

At today's price, the 7,000 taels of gold offered in 1978 would be worth $3.3 million. Instead, Huang was reported to receive 650,000 yuan, worth $370,000.

The F5F is the most sophisticated aircraft in Taiwan's Air Force, possessing technology superior to anything flown by the Chinese, according to Western military experts here. Nevertheless, it is considered obsolescent, a relatively uncomplicated plane designed for sale to developing countries. None of its models was incorporated in the U.S. Air Force.

Although the modified F5F that Huang flew was designed for intelligence gathering and training, the plane can easily be converted to a fighter. The Chinese could benefit by learning what they face from the Taiwanese and could disassemble the aircraft and learn how to produce it, analysts said. But that could take too many years to be practical, they added.

Military analysts said the plane does not measure up to the sophisticated Soviet jet fighters arrayed north of China's borders. The F5F was first produced in 1974 and Taiwan has asked to buy a more advanced plane, the analysts said.

Even so, the defection amounts to a major military and propaganda coup for Peking, which has been trying with little success to win back Taiwan by peaceful means after more than 30 years of civil war.

Both sides have offered bounties to defectors for years. When a Chinese pilot flew to Taiwan in a Mig19 in 1977, he reportedly received $250,000 in gold.

When Peking published its bounty list the following year, it offered gold then worth $5.7 million for a naval officer bringing a destroyer. In 1974, New China News Agency had recorded the defection of a Taiwanese naval officer in a rubber dinghy. The only known precedent for a Nationalist Chinese pilot defecting was in 1963.

Peking has wasted little time in using Huang's "patriotic act" to advance its propaganda campaign toward Taiwan.

Huang, 29, was shown smiling on national television tonight in his new Chinese Air Force uniform, and was quoted as saying, "I have longed to return to the mainland and I'm glad that my wish has come true." With the rank of major, he will earn about $50 a month.

According to the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily, Huang was honored at a banquet last night in the southeast province of Fujian, about 100 miles across the Straits of Formosa from Taiwan, where he landed his aircraft. He was received by the commander of the Fujian military region, the political commissar and the provincial governor.

Military commander Yang Chengwu cited Huang as an example that "all Chinese have a special responsibility for unification of the mainland, whether he is in Taiwan or the mainland," according to People's Daily.

An Air Force spokesman in Taiwan was quoted as saying that a Taiwanese airman and his F5F plane were lost during training maneuvers over the Formosa Straits. The spokesman said there has been no word of the plane or pilot, whom he identified as Huang. The spokesman said a copilot had bailed out after the aircraft's communications system went bad and was rescued by Taiwanese frogmen.