hey terrorized the central China plains like the old Jesse James gang, raiding military arsenals at night and robbing banks by day. The masked bandits killed everyone in sight as they rode off on bicycles with bags of loot.

By the time their rampage was stopped in a predawn shootout, two men in their twenties had left a wake of destruction hundreds of miles wide. They killed nine people, including two police officers. They seriously injured six others. They stole thousands of dollars and enough weapons for a small army.

Their confessions plumbed the depths of social despair. Sons of middle-level workers, they felt trapped in China's poverty cycle. They fantasized a life of beautiful women and luxuries glimpsed in the Gregory Peck film, "The Man With a Million." They admired Hitler's use of power and plotted a course of violence, preaching the slogan, "Nice guys finish last."

Their story sounds a bit incongruous in a nation stereotyped for its obedient citizenry, but it is one of the criminal profiles revealed in secret police reports of major offenses in 1979 and 1980. The Washington Post was able to obtain a collection of 21 reports about major crimes committed in those two years that offers a unique glimpse into the world of the Chinese criminal and the police who are pursuing him.

The reports disclose pockets of deviant behavior seldom reported in the state-run media. They put a rare spotlight on China's misfits, the crooked few driven by misplaced passions, greed or social frustration in this regimented Communist land.

The criminal scene the documents portray is very different from the popular image of China as an orderly, nonviolent society. Rather, it is a realm of sudden brutality, sordid love triangles, macabre sexual mutilation and cunning theft rings.

The police manhunts led to parts of China hidden from the foreign observer, through mean city streets of cynical youths, through the rugged hinterlands inhabited by corrupt commune bosses and peasants known as "Slimy" and "Night Prowler." In this milieu, a bandit cut off his victim's arm for a wristwatch, a disgruntled factory worker blows up a busload of 36 persons, leaving a suicide note that says, "Only I can determine my fate."

Compared with those on U.S. police blotters, the Chinese law breaker is a rare species. Official press accounts list an average of 750,000 offenses in China yearly -- less than a fiftieth of the cases reported in the United States in 1980.

Still, crime has become serious enough for strict law-and-order campaigns. Newspapers occasionally report crimes and punishments, usually to convey a lesson in morality. Executions are carried out in sports stadiums with thousands of cheering spectators.

"Not only are they bold, unscrupulous and blind to the consequences, they are extraordinarily cunning," said police investigators from China's southwest describing a new breed of criminal.

No meaningful composite of the Chinese outlaw can be drawn from the police records. The culprits came from all parts of China and from diverse backgrounds ranging from rural vagabond to city physician. Ages range from 14 to 58.

Most offenders, however, fall into a grouping known as "the lost generation." Now in their twenties and thirties, they sacrificed their schooling and chance for good jobs to fuel a political campaign in the 1960s called the Cultural Revolution that today is universally condemned as China's darkest hour.

Their frustration and sense of betrayal form part of the sociology of crime provided in the police documents.

"They felt hopeless about the future," said investigators analyzing the central plains bandits. "They see a very large gap between their own expectations and the social reality."

Opposed to China's criminals, the documents make clear, is a police force prepared to use far-reaching investigatory powers and to devote weeks and even months methodically following up the minutest clues to bring the wrongdoers to justice.

One group of investigators checked out 5,000 false leads, examined 20,000 sets of fingerprints and questioned 700 suspects before devising a new hypothesis to solve a kidnaping.

A cylindrical shoelace and two pieces of walnut cake found next to a murder victim in an empty railway car eventually led to the arrest of a killer.

The mercenary motives of today's criminal strikes a raw nerve in a Marxist system that, at least theoretically, strives to eliminate social classes and private property.

China's 33 years of communism have produced an economy of scarcity. City dwellers squeeze into four square yards each of housing. Average annual grain consumption remains at 1950s levels. An archaic school system offers college places to only 5 percent of eligible students.

In this setting, property crime has become a shortcut to easy wealth. About half of the offenses detailed in the police reports were robberies and thefts committed by desperate men seeking a way out of deprivation.

Some were crimes of opportunity: the bricklayer looking for extra money to build a house kills a fellow train passenger for her wristwatch. The 14-year-old high school dropout steals a French tourist's wallet containing $350.

Other capers were meticulously planned, such as the theft of precious cultural relics from a museum near the ancient capital of Xian. The ringleader, a prison escapee, told police after his capture that he hoped to become a millionaire by selling the antiquities in the British colony of Hong Kong.

More than a third of the culprits portrayed in the police files had past criminal records, casting doubt on official claims of a low recidivism rate among criminals in China.

One multiple killer said he had gained his initiation to crime while serving an earlier sentence at a penal farm.

"I was taught to stay away from liquor if I wanted to stay above suspicion," Song Qunguang, 21, said after confessing to 18 murders and armed robberies during a six-month period.

Few of the violent crimes were executed with firearms, which are strictly prohibited in China. Lethal substitutes were found, however, ranging from dynamite to toxic drugs.

Perhaps the most bizzare slaying happened in the southeast coastal city of Fuzhou. A factory worker who became jealous of his mistress' husband slipped into his bedroom one spring night in 1979 and electrocuted him while he slept.

The killer quietly connected a wire to a light socket, wrapped the other end around the slumbering husband's leg and toes, then simply turned on the electric light switch.

Sex, a taboo subject in China's puritanical Communist society, was the motivating force in several violent crimes in the vast countryside.

Some of the culprits were obvious suspects, such as a profane maintenance man known as "Slimy" who strangled a young peasant at a farm outside Canton, then sexually abused the corpse.

Others like Wang Zhanlu, police chief for several villages in Manchuria, were less likely candidates for crime. Wang had fallen in love with the wife of a local shopkeeper named Cui and had offered to swap his own wife so as to continue the affair.

When the storekeeper refused, Wang hired an accomplice for $100 and set out to murder Cui, assuring the accomplice that "you don't have to worry. I'm head of police. I know how to cover up a crime."

On a summer night in 1980, the two men knocked on Cui's door, asking to talk. Once inside, they clubbed him to death, threw fireplace ashes on the floor to cover their tracks and stole corn from the cupboard to give the appearance of theft.

"They'll never solve this case in 30 years," Wang boasted after the killing.

He miscalculated, however, not realizing that 33 detectives from outside his jurisdiction would be assigned to the investigation. Despite his efforts to divert the probe, Wang and his cohort were soon arrested.

Rural officials who abuse their power have been criticized publicly by the party in recent years. Acting like local despots, they reportedly have antagonized large blocks of the peasantry by arbitrarily dispensing fines and favors.

One tragic byproduct of popular anger was the bombing of a commune social hall in the northeast coal mining region, which killed 86 persons and seriously injured 197 others while they were viewing a film.

The explosion that turned East Wind commune into a mass funeral was set off by the Yu brothers, who had a long list of grievances against commune officials.

The younger Yu had sought to join the Army, the traditional way of improving one's lot for many young peasants. He was rejected by the production brigade's party secretary because Yu's family had a politically questionable, that is wealthy, background.

The elder Yu blamed the commune clinic for denying medicine to his dying child. He was bitter because of official refusal to give him land for a house. And he was angered when a local cadre fraudulently got his unqualified relative a good job by claiming he was Yu.

The Yu brothers had originally decided to bomb the house of every official, according to their later confession. But, they thought it too risky a strategy and next planned to dynamite a meeting of commune leaders. But, the officials never met together.

So, the brothers plotted their revenge at a social hall. They buried about 400 pounds of explosives in the earthen floor and waited for the next movie night. Then, on Dec. 1, 1979, they lit the fuse while 900 commune members were sitting through the second reel of the film.

Few of the crimes were so premeditated.

A more spontaneous act of passion was the murder by drug overdose of a technician in the central province of Shanxi whose wife was a physician.

One afternoon, he discovered a love letter his wife had written to her paramour addressed simply as "My Spring."

When he threatened to "take care" both of his wife and her lover, the good doctor advised her husband to calm down for the sake of his health, and she administered a few tranquilizers.

Then, while he napped, she injected toxic doses of a drug into his arm, buttocks and left chest until her husband turned blue.