At Front Gate Market just south of Mao Tse-tung's marbled tomb, the only "little red books" in sight are ledgers to balance profits and loss.

The shops and steamy eateries lining the bazaar have a new credo called "responsibility system," which is about as revolutionary as a Horatio Alger tale. In fact, this emerging doctrine that holds workers financially accountable for their work comes under the heading of capitalism almost anywhere else.

But "responsibility" is the name Mao's modernizing heirs chose for their campaign to vitalize a labor force lulled to sleep by three decades of guaranteed jobs and fixed wages.

Fresh from an impressive debut in agriculture, the policy is beginning to spread like the gospel to a few professional groups and commercial outlets that have long set standards for sloth and inefficiency.

New believers are coming forward from all directions:

Peking Opera performers will in effect sing for their supper by trimming their state salaries in exchange for a share of receipts.

More than 1,400 Shanghai restaurants now are fully responsible for their profits and losses, and their employes are paid according to business flow.

Professional writers in the coastal province of Zhejiang will live off their royalties rather than state subsidies doled out regardless of literary merit.

The significance of these reforms to a system once indiscriminately patronized by the state is subject to varying interpretations, with China's cheerleader media calling it "another revolution" and hard-headed foreign analysts viewing it more skeptically.

"They're manipulating at the margins," observed a western economist here. "A handful of enterprises experimenting with incentives hardly makes a revolution."

Yet, it is a start. The plan is to convert all 500,000 retail outlets by 1985, weeding out the losing propositions while allowing profit-makers to expand in a socialist version of economic Darwinism.

The "responsibility" concept fits into a larger mosaic of reform now covering the surface of China's economy. New experiments are being unveiled weekly: a tax system to govern industry, contract hiring by merit and expansion of the private sector into schools and hospitals.

If recent history is any guide, however, few projects get far before leftist opposition to the ruling reform faction forces a hasty retreat.

The "responsibility" system may be an exception as it moves quickly and easily into the commercial life of places like Front Gate Market.

Once an exotic emporium for silks, spices and singsong girls, Front Gate has been ground down through years of scarcity and rigid communist planning to a frowsy, indifferent dispenser of daily necessities.

No doubt dozens of its stores have been kept open for years despite poor management and heavy losses.

Their employes had little incentive to work harder because everyone in Mao's China possessed an "iron rice bowl," a widely used euphemism for guaranteed job and wage regardless of performance.

Since the dawning of "responsibility," however, Front Gate has left at least a small crack in the bowl. Hundreds of merchants were forced in January to adopt a new practice of docking workers for company losses and rewarding them with a share of profits.

Now, the silk store salesgirls previously known for their surliness patiently unfurl long bolts of colorful material for their customers, encouraging an extra sale with smiles.

The manager of a confectionery shop has begun looking outside Peking for new products to expand his offerings.

The hot dumpling kiosks stay open later, the baker covers his bread to keep it fresh and the vegetable vendor gingerly places his cabbages on shelves instead of unceremoniously dumping them on the dirt floor. "Merchandise is more or less the same wherever you go, so we have to offer good service if we want the customer to buy here," said a tea shop clerk.

The ginseng salesman at an herbal drugstore said he may "go after" customers on the street by placing his goods on a pushcart.

This born-again capitalism comes down to simple economics at Front Gate. Everyone still gets 80 percent of the old base pay--about $20 a month--and a good chance to earn the balance with a good attitude.

But the kicker is the right to take home part of the shop's profits, a potential bonanza that already has yielded such unheard-of bonuses as $50 a month at some stores.

"Everybody in the country, except the lazy, supports the application of the principle, 'He who works more earns more,' " the English-language newspaper China Daily said.

China Daily may find few dissenters at Front Gate, but there is considerable evidence of significant resistance to the sweet-and-sour communism of Deng Xiaoping, architect of "responsibility systems" and anathema to Mao's leftist disciples.

For example, the ginseng vendor said coworkers he described as lazy have talked down the profit-sharing scheme as "retrogression" to capitalism.

At the famous Peking Opera, singers who agreed to substitute box office incentives for the iron rice bowl complain of sniping by their state-supported colleagues.

Reports of discrimination against the enterprising extend to state research enterprises.

In one case, an engineer named Han Kun who was employed by the Shanghai Rubber Research Institute was demoted after his bosses discovered he had been paid consulting fees for moonlighting.

Han had received $100 for helping a small factory improve the quality of its miniature rubber bearings, and in so doing helped save the enterprise from bankruptcy.

His institute superiors, however, accused him of a "serious economic crime," stripped him of seniority and assigned him to work as a manual laborer in a workshop.

When Shanghai authorities heard of the case, they had the engineer reinstated, but the story still illustrates the staying power of Mao's egalitarian thinking.

"Nobody in the iron rice bowl system has anything to gain from reform," said a western diplomat. "Real reform adds up to the demand for real work.