The Chinese Army, once the route to glory and a better life for many peasant youths, has developed an image problem. Soldiers in the world's largest Army have fallen so far in status that many now have trouble finding girlfriends or marriage partners, according to official Chinese publications.

Many Chinese now consider it best to avoid the People's Liberation Army if possible.

The main problem seems to be money. While Chinese young peasants used to see Army service as a way to gain training and perhaps a better job, they can now earn more running a rural workshop or just staying on the farm.

Economic changes introduced several years ago by China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, have brought relative prosperity to many parts of the countryside, which is where the Army gets most of its recruits.

Other problems facing today's soldier include a drop in social status, a lack of any vacation leave, and a prohibition against courting girls in the localities where Army units are stationed.

Soldiers serve for three years. They receive 10 to 14 yuan, or about $3.12 to $4.37 per month. A factory worker can earn as much as 100 yuan, or about $31.25 a month.

More than a year ago, Hong Kong magazines with reliable sources in China began publishing reports that recruitment had become a major problem -- for the first time since the Communists came to power in 1949.

With fewer men volunteering, the Army is said to be relying increasingly on what some Chinese say can be heavy-handed recruiters and on quotas for factories.

The Chinese also say that it is fairly common for city dwellers to laugh at what they call "stupid soldiers." One official publication has declared that some military officers treat their soldiers like servants, employing them for domestic tasks such as gardening or doing the laundry.

And while most Chinese propaganda portrays the country's more than 3 million soldiers as happy, selfless and highly disciplined, on occasion, the official press alludes to a darker side of the Army.

For example, a recent issue of the monthly magazine, Life in the PLA, carried the results of a survey of the views of 1,000 soldiers on love and marriage. The article said "a fairly common response" of soldiers consulted was that it was difficult to find a girlfriend.

"The moment we mentioned the word 'girlfriend,' quite a number of soldiers shook their heads," wrote the authors.

"In the view of some girls, the social status of PLA soldiers declined during the past few years, thereby diminishing the glory associated with marrying a soldier," said the magazine. "The incomes of soldiers are quite low . . . "

"During their three-year service in the Army, soldiers have no vacation leave; thus they have no chance to meet possible girlfriends introduced by their families," it said.

The rising cost of weddings in the countryside has also become a problem. The magazine article mentions the case of a squad leader who joined the Army in 1983. His family introduced him to two prospective marriage partners, but both girls insisted on a betrothal gift of 2,000 yuan, or about $625.

The squad leader turned down the requests for such a gift, but when he saw that many people in his own age group were getting married, he decided to compromise. He took out a loan, got engaged -- to yet another girl -- and used the loan to pay for the betrothal gift.

In addition to such gifts, the bridegroom's family is expected in some parts of the newly prosperous countryside to pay for the wedding festivities, furniture and even a color television set.

The regulation prohibiting soldiers from courting girls in the localities where units are stationed has been in effect for many years, and is apparently strictly enforced. But the magazine said some soldiers secretly court local girls.

According to the survey, however, most of these marriages turn out poorly because courtships under these conditions fail to provide the couple with a "real understanding" of each other.

A former soldier who is now a taxi driver summed up Army life this way recently: a soldier is separated from his family and friends, has no chance of making extra money, and has very low prestige, so "nobody in his right mind would want to join."

Or, as a current popular saying has it, "to be a soldier is to suffer losses."