In Chinatowns across America, this rugged rice land famous for its mercantile folk is a place called home.

From this town and the hills of the surrounding county of the same name went the strong backs that built America's railways and mined its gold, cooks who introduced the egg roll and pioneers of the family laundry. No less than half of the 800,000 Chinese descendants in the United States look back at this rustic corner of southern China as the home of their fathers.

If little Taishan left its mark on America, then the rub surely worked in reverse, for no other place in China has been so intensely affected by the United States--for better and for worse.

The Taishan story is intertwined with America's coming-of-age and the vagaries of Chinese-U.S. relations. Old buildings here, the lifestyle--complete with old-fashioned pool halls--and personal vignettes of triumph and suffering reflect this unique history today.

First a boon, then a nightmare, the American connection helped turn a backwater into a precocious modernizer early this century and exposed it to chilling persecution and neglect for most of the past 33 years of Communist rule.

Only recently have Taishanese felt secure enough politically to live openly with their American past.

"I was the only Chinese boy to attend Bible school in Buffalo," said Huang Zaihua, 83, fingering sepia photographs of his early years abroad. "Almost all these old pictures were torn up over the years. All my English books were destroyed. After I returned home, they called me an American spy and put me in jail for six years. I loved America, but this was my country.

"Now, the two countries are friends again, and I can look at my old things. An old man looking back at his childhood."

The bittersweet tale of Taishan began by an accident of geography. Close to the busy port of Guangzhou, then known as Canton, Taishanese had regular contact with the American clipper ships docked there and the beefy "bosses" who recruited labor for the California gold rush.

A month after gold was discovered in 1848, a few Chinese were among the first prospectors. They quickly sent back word to their villages, then impoverished by famine and warlord plunder. By 1849, the pilot batch of 325 hearty souls from Taishan and surrounding counties set sail for "Old Gold Mountain," which is the Chinese name for San Francisco. The seeds of the Chinese-American community were planted.

Once settled, the Chinese pilgrims set up clan and village associations to arrange passage for their relatives. There was steady work and good pay to offer newcomers--$1 a day was the going wage in California in the 1850s compared to $3 monthly in Taishan.

The migratory trickle began to flow openly in the mid-1860s with thousands of Chinese arriving monthly to build the transcontinental railroads across the tough terrain of America's West.

By the 1870s, they were riding the rails they helped build, moving to parts of the United States where few Chinese had ever set foot: Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

"Taishanese go where there is money," said a local historian.

Early settlers realized money could be made not only by hard labor but also in providing services. This was a legacy of Taishan, where versatility was the coin of survival. With little land for farming, Taishanese turned to whatever promised a livelihood: peddling, cooking, tending shop or handicrafts.

They put this adroitness to good use in the new world, raising and cooking their own foods in the mining camps of the 1850s--harbingers of America's chop suey restaurants.

When San Francisco dandies sent their shirts as far away as Hong Kong to be washed and ironed, Taishanese offered to do the work cheaper--and the Chinese laundryman was born.

Even as they fit snugly into the American scene, Taishanese remembered whence they came. About half of the 300,000 Chinese who reached America before 1880 returned home with new ideas and money to uplift their poor villages.

Those who stayed in America sent big sums of money home--an average of $30 to $40 a person until the Great Depression, according to author Jack Chen. The remittances were generous enough to defray half of China's adverse balance of payments at one point.

The trans-Pacific link brought modern luster to Taishan far ahead of larger, more cosmopolitan centers. In 1906, a rail line was extended here. Two years later, the first school for girls was opened. Public roads were built, telephone lines buzzed with long-distance calls, technical schools were started and movie theaters played U.S. films.

"We've always been thought of being ahead of our time," said Zhao Jiguan, a local official. "Other Chinese still envy us for our overseas connections."

But Taishan's fortunes soured when Communist guerrillas seized the mainland in 1949. Fiercely nationalistic, they equated China's ignominy with foreign influence. After American troops sent to South Korea battled Chinese forces, the new government directed its bitterest barbs at the United States.

Like westernized Chinese everywhere, Taishanese were suspected of being a fifth column. For the next 25 years of political witch hunts, they were targets of persecution, beatings and imprisonment.

"I was always frightened to death someone would find an old picture of my sister from California," said a middle-aged woman here.

Financial ruin followed the terror. Taishan slipped into a shabbiness, cut off from American money and neglected by a central government that concentrated its resources on "model" communities.

Only after Peking began normalizing relations with Washington in the 1970s did Taishan begin to bounce back. Remittances streamed in again--$3 million yearly--and bicycles, televisions and refrigerators arrived from the United States.

China had shifted its emphasis from ideology to modernity, and Taishan--which had been haunted by its past for decades--suddenly became an asset for attracting needed American capital and know-how.

Now Taishan County is hoping for a renaissance and looking back across the Pacific Ocean for its inspiration. Chinese-Americans are being invited to invest in joint ventures, send consumer goods or just come home for a look.

If C. W. Wang, who left for an American education in the 1940s, is any guide, Taishan County has a chance. "I went back in search of my roots," said Wang, 52, now a professor in Hong Kong. "My grandmother's picture was still on the wall of my old house. Nobody bothered to take it down for all those years. I wept, tears really coming. After going back, I know how my life has changed a lot, but my village is so far behind.

"They say Chinese, no matter where they are, have an obligation to improve their home. After all, I was born here."