"Every social era needs its own great personages. If there is no such personage, it will create one."

Karl Marx

After years of reshaping China from behind the scenes, Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping is emerging with a heroic public image to match his political power.

From newspaper photographs depicting his revolutionary youth to officially sponsored fanfare over his writings, Deng for the first time is being cast as a dynamic leader of historic significance.

Commentators urging the nation to learn from his example now describe Deng as "the major designer of contemporary Chinese politics" who belongs in the pantheon of communism.

The star billing falls short of the adulation once accorded Mao Tse-tung, and it fits somewhat oddly on Deng, who always opposed Mao's cult of personality and shunned the spotlight himself as he worked backstage on the reform programs that are his trademark.

Diplomats believe the sudden celebration of Deng has less to do with vanity than with the requirements of China's political culture. At 79, he is working out a legacy to bolster his handpicked successors.

China has been ruled since classical times by men who have claimed moral inspiration from great political forebears, be it Confucius, Marx or Mao. "The legacy of great deeds gives your proteges the high moral ground in any succession debate and puts the masses on their side," said a western analyst. "Deng is building himself larger than life to set the terms for the inevitable debate."

Twice purged by Mao, Deng has been preoccupied with his political afterlife since seizing power in 1978. His first move was to puncture the Mao myth, undermining the officials who had staked their claim to power on the strength of their political kinship to "the great helmsman," who died in 1976.

Deng maneuvered to replace them with his younger allies, who are cast from the same mold as he--energetic modernizers committed to flexible economic policies and open-door diplomacy.

Although Deng clearly is the prime mover of post-Mao China, he has contented himself with modest portfolios as chief of the Military Commission, head of an advisory council and member of the Politburo's elite Standing Committee.

With his proteges now secure and his reforms taking root, however, he appears to be carving out a place in history for himself to make sure his impact outlives him.

"You need a baton to pass to your successors, the word as it were for the good of posterity," said an Asian diplomat.

The word started coming down in a pointed reminder of what has long served as the initiation for Chinese Communist stardom--participation in the Long March of the Red Army to the caves of Yenan in 1934-35.

In May, Deng was called on to inscribe a huge granite monument commemorating one of the march's famous battles in his home province of Sichuan.

His reputation as a strong military figure was reinforced in June with a half-page spread of photos in the People's Daily illustrating his rise from guerrilla fighter in the 1930s to military planner in the 1940s to commander in chief reviewing troops from the back of a limousine in the 1980s.

Other photos have been released for the first time to round out the image: Deng the genial family man on horseback with a granddaughter in one arm, Deng the administrator at his desk, and Deng the economic specialist visiting a corn field.

On July 1, the testimonials began spiraling with the publication of "Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping," a collection of his speeches and statements from 1975 to 1982.

Although the 393-page volume sheds little new light on Deng's thinking or career, it is being treated like an oracular treatise, the new communist bible that is to serve as the standard for the party's coming rectification campaign.

Wandering through an array of subjects from politics to literature, it is the first document to arouse such fanfare since Mao's "Little Red Book" became scripture for the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

Within a day of its release, the Army and provincial party organs were mandating careful study of "Selected Works," and top officials used it as a vehicle for praising Deng.

Military commander Li Desheng, who has opposed some of Deng's reforms, wrote that the writings reflect "the vision and sagacity of a mature Marxist and the superior skill in the leadership of a proletarian politician."

Politburo member Yang Shangkun credited Deng with creating "a model for the union of revolutionary soul and the realistic spirit."

The official news media claimed that 2 million copies of the rust-colored book were snatched up in the first 10 days as long lines formed outside bookstores. Reports of reader reaction from the generally apolitical Chinese public sounded suspiciously rehearsed, however.

According to one report, Shanghai shipyard workers began discussing the book's merits the morning of its release.

"This will help me understand the line, principles and policies of the party since late 1978," an unidentified worker was quoted as saying.

Plans have been made to publish another 10 million copies, serialize the book on radio and translate it into 10 foreign languages.

Even though Deng fought Mao for much of his career and criticizes his ultraleftism in the book, commentators have obscured the rivalry, apparently to make Deng's following universal.

According to the party's theoretical journal, Red Flag, Deng "didn't tarnish Mao's image but recovered it from the godlike state and made it human again."

The military's influential Liberation Army Daily went a step further, saying Deng "safeguarded Mao's historic position under new historical conditions and upheld and developed Mao Tse-tung thought."