An anticipated visit to Chinese ports by U.S. Navy ships probably will be postponed, according to Reagan administration officials.

Originally expected by some U.S. Navy officers to be made last month, the symbolic port call more recently was expected to begin in Shanghai in about a week. But one U.S. official said that, barring unexpected last-minute developments, the visit will be postponed.

The official said that one reason the Chinese appeared reluctant to accept a port visit from U.S. warships now is that, in Peking's view, it might prove damaging to China's image as independent of the United States and Soviet Union.

"I think image has a lot to do with it," said a senior State Department official, adding that the Chinese also had difficulty with the U.S. policy of not providing assurances that U.S. ships making good-will port calls are free of nuclear weapons.

"I think it will take some more time to work this out," the official said. "It will be a nice thing to get when we get it, but this is not a major setback for U.S.-China relations. . . . As somebody over here said, 'We've waited 36 years for this. I guess we can wait a while longer.' "

Officials both here and in Peking said the two sides had disagreed over the wording of a proposed agreement on the port visit. But most indications from both sides until recently were that they agreed in principle on a port call to Shanghai and expected it to go forward starting about May 18.

Negotiations over the projected visit have been carried out at a relatively low level. U.S. and Chinese naval officers have been discussing it for several months. Recently, U.S. diplomats in Peking began an exchange of views on the subject with Chinese Foreign Ministry officials.

If the visit is postponed, as is now expected here, both sides probably will go to great lengths to play down the significance of the development to limit any possible damage to other aspects of U.S.-China relations.

Asked last week in Peking and Shanghai about the projected Navy visit, Chinese officials tended to minimize its importance, emphasizing instead its ceremonial aspect and pointing out that the navies of several other western nations have made such visits.

Hu Yaobang, the Chinese Communist Party chief, and a high-ranking Chinese Foreign Ministry official made remarks in an interview last month that seemed to rule out the possibility of any nuclear-armed U.S. ships participating in the port call, which added a note of controversy to the visit.

The U.S. and Chinese navies clearly seemed to be in favor of the Shanghai visit, and the Chinese Navy is interested in getting U.S. help in modernizing its destroyer fleet. But a U.S. official said recently that some Chinese Foreign Ministry officials, perhaps more conscious than Chinese Navy officers of China's image among developing nations and the peace movements that the Chinese court, seemed reluctant to go ahead with the visit.

Officials at both the State and Defense departments said that regardless of whether the port visit eventually takes place, other aspects of U.S.-Chinese defense coordination, including negotiations over possible sales of U.S. military equipment to China, were continuing.