Sinking into the orange stuffed chair beside Secretary of State George P. Schultz at the great Hall of the People, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping needed no introduction as the savvy godfather of Sino-American relations.

But flanking Deng in the horseshoe seating pattern of today's meeting were several Chinese officials previously unknown to Shultz--and all but a few Americans--despite their paramount influence on Peking's perceptions and policies toward the United States.

They are China's leading U.S. experts, seasoned diplomats and policy analysts who interpret America for the Communist rulers and handle the daily demands of bilateral ties.

Known as "America watchers," these men in their gray Mao suits strike a sharp contrast to their U.S. counterparts. They serve as advisers and faithful implementers of policy, not forceful advocates. They brief their superiors at length but never give a public speech. They draft position papers but would rather perish than publish them. They may provoke debate in the Communist Party's inner councils, but they avoid personal involvement and never quit in protest.

In their backstage fashion, however, they have guided Peking through 12 uneven years of U.S.-Chinese relations while American officials have come and gone in four administrations.

Gazing at Shultz's entourage this morning in the ornate conference room, Deng quipped, "I don't see many familiar faces."

Yet seated within range of his good right ear on the Chinese side were the same specialists who have helped to navigate every turn in bilateral relations since Henry Kissinger's secret talks here in 1971.

First in line was newly appointed ambassador to the United States Zhang Wenjin, 68, the gentle diplomat who escorted Kissinger to Peking on his pilot mission and devised the key language for the 1972 Shanghai communique that set the two nations on the path of normalization after 30 years of diplomatic separation.

Next to him was Vice Foreign Minister Han Xu, 58, the courtly, crew-cut official who founded China's first mission in Washington in 1973, participated in the normalization talks five years later and negotiated last year's agreement defusing the Taiwan arms sale issue.

Further down was Zhu Qizhen, 55, a western opera buff who heads the Foreign Ministry's American section and helped implement key bilateral programs growing out of normalization.

Then there was Zhang Zai, 54, the reticent policy analyst who has devoted more than 30 years to the study of U.S. affairs and is said to be able to recite from memory the entire negotiating history of the United States and China since 1949.

With China's new foreign minister uninitiated in U.S. policy, these obscure officials whose names never appear in China's press were pivotal in organizing the Shultz visit, setting the agenda for talks and participating in discussions.

They are senior members of the tiny club of America hands in government ministries and think tanks who run a monopoly on counseling China's highly insulated rulers.

Although the life of Peking's ruling elite generally is kept secret, interviews with a dozen Chinese and U.S. sources over the past 18 months opened a small window on the personalities and workings of the influential few who watch the United States.

The number of experienced Americanologists is said to be fewer than a hundred as China emerges from three decades of isolation from the United States when interest in America was tantamount to treason.

Of this handful, most are people in their late 50s and 60s who trace their U.S. connection to American missionary schools in pre-Communist China or Allied military bases here during World War II. Vice Minister Han served in an ambulance unit rescuing downed American pilots returning from bombing raids in Japan.

Sons of wealthy and worldly families, they entered diplomatic careers often at the knee of the late premier Chou En-lai. Ambassador Zhang, for instance, began his career as Chou's personal secretary during Gen. George C. Marshall's 1946 mission to unite Chinese Communists and Nationalists against Japan.

They are thoroughly westernized, fluent English speakers, who can turn an American joke, name unimportant U.S. congressmen and discuss Hemingway.

But their unique backgrounds that make them so conversant with American society have backfired brutally in China's more xenophobic times, for their fates are tied to the ebb and flow of bilateral ties.

Take the story of Ji Chaozhu, 52, the New York City-bred diplomat who now ranks third in China's embassy in Washington. During the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, he was exiled to a work camp. In 1972, he was recalled to interpret for the historic talks between Mao Tse-tung and president Nixon only to be dispatched back to the camp after Nixon left China.

Despite their familiarity with American subjects, Ji and his associates are said to be dedicated Communists who pursue their nation's interests with the tenacity of guerrilla fighters.

U.S. Ambassador Arthur Hummel Jr. complained of feeling "cold breath on my neck" while negotiating the Taiwan arms communique last year with his old friend Han.

"They are fluent interpreters of the American scene, but this is not a pro-American crowd," said a U.S. official. "They see benefits to China from relations with the United States and go after the benefits with great sophistication."

How they identify those benefits and operate within Peking's tightly held foreign policy circle differs vastly from the style of China specialists in the United States.

There are no open seminars here for diplomats to cross-fertilize ideas with graduate students, nor congressional hearings to air varying views of U.S. society. There are no pressure groups to take a stand, nor journals debating Peking's U.S. policies. Few universities offer courses on the United States, and bookstores carry more volumes on the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus than on any American figure.

In China, America gazers hone their skills more privately. They travel to the United States in small groups, exploring Congress, museums, factories and science laboratories. Many stay to study at U.S. universities.

Back home, they read articles on U.S. affairs published in the vast network of classified newspapers or packaged by Chinese embassy staffers in Washington who are said to prepare a daily digest of the American press.

Government-run think tanks focus more microscopically on American problems, publishing their work in the internal press or in secret documents.

Some sources said, however, that these researchers spend much of their time coming up with material to justify the party line rather than drawing independent conclusions or proposing recommendations.

The new Institute of American Studies now has more than 20 staffers investigating social, economic and political trends.

Institute director Li Shenzhi has thus far avoided publicity but is said to be considering a more visible role similar to the Kremlin's chief Americanologist, Georgi Arbatov.

Another influential think tank is the Foreign Ministry's Institute of International Studies, which has a 12-member team concentrating on American diplomatic moves.

Less is known of the Defense Ministry's Peking Institute for Strategic Studies, which has an American section that deals closely with U.S. military attaches based in Peking.

No foreigner knows exactly how this collective wisdom affects China's U.S. policy, which is formulated at the party's pinnacle--chiefly by Deng--without public debate or other outside input.

Only Ambassador Zhang and Han are believed to have a direct line to Deng, the pragmatic Communist who has become a first-hand observer himself after traveling to the United States and meeting the steady stream of American visitors to China.

Deng is said to rely on these two officials as his chief counselors on U.S. policy and as personal messengers. Han, who represented China in Washington during the secret talks that resulted in normalization, reportedly never strayed from Deng's cabled instructions.

"He'd come in and read something, and if you didn't get it down, he'd read it again," recalled a Carter administration official. "Then, he'd pack up and return" to the Chinese mission.

Another key communicator is the one-time New Yorker Ji, whose American mannerisms make him a favorite among the congressmen he lobbies in Washington. The rangy envoy, who had been studying chemistry at Harvard University when the Korean War broke out and drew him back to China, was described by one visiting U.S. politician as "one helluva backslapper."

Ambassador Zhang, Ji and Han have built the Foreign Ministry's U.S. department into the envy of Peking's diplomatic community. In the past 12 years, the section has tripled in size as it added American-educated analysts who are regarded as the most gifted of any regional desk.

How Peking readied itself for the Shultz mission provides some insight into the highly regimented foreign policy apparatus here and the pivotal role of senior America hands.

Whereas Shultz convened a seminar of China experts from various backgrounds and digested a thick briefing book of reports from numerous government agencies, China's principals are said to have been less eclectic in drawing together their mental resources.

The preparation process reportedly began when Han, acting like a field general, called together U.S. specialists from think tanks and ministries and assigned position papers.

The papers were submitted to the Foreign Ministry's U.S. desk where they were rewritten along with biographies of Shultz and his party that were written by the Chinese Embassy staff in Washington.

Finally the finished product was packaged in a fat ring binder and presented to the officials who were to meet with Shultz during his four-day visit.