The Peking correspondent for The New York Times was detained yesterday and held in the custody of Chinese authorities in Peking after he was told he was being investigated on suspicion of "entering an area forbidden to foreigners, gathering intelligence information and espionage," according to U.S. officials.

John F. Burns, 41, a British citizen who has been the Times' Peking bureau chief since November 1984, was detained and questioned for 15 hours at the Peking airport as he was about to leave China with his family for a three-week vacation in Hong Kong, according to Burns, who was able to cable his New York office and subsequently spoke to Times Foreign Editor Warren Hoge.

Although he has not been formally charged, he is being held in a detention center by Chinese security police pending the outcome of an investigation, according to U.S. and British officials in Washington, London and Peking.

Chinese authorities in Peking have told U.S. officials that he is not under arrest but is being detained because he entered an area that is closed to foreigners in Shaanxi province in north central China.

A State Department spokesman said the United States "is taking this very seriously." U.S. officials said they have registered their concern with Chinese officials in Washington and with authorities in Peking.

After he was questioned at the airport, Burns, his longtime companion Jane Scott-Long, and their two young children were taken back to their Peking apartment, where 10 security men with video cameras conducted a systematic search, according to The New York Times account.

Two hours later, Burns was moved to the Bao Zhu detention center in the city and led into what appeared to be a cellblock, according to the Times. Scott-Long, who was not detained, said she believed she would be allowed to make daily visits to the center. There was no indication how long Burns would be held.

Times' Executive Editor A. M. Rosenthal said Burns had traveled to the countryside to gather material for stories. He was quoted in the Times' account as saying the trip was "purely journalistic. He has our total confidence and I'm sure all this will be straightened out."

Burns made a 1,000-mile trip by motorcycle in the first week of July through the adjacent provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxi. He traveled with Edward McNally, a U.S. Justice Department lawyer who had been teaching constitutional law at Peking University, and Zhang Daxing, a Chinese citizen who had studied in the United States and recently had returned to China, according to the Times.

It is not clear where he entered a forbidden area, but at one point during the trip, he and his traveling companions were detained for three days by local security officials. They were told they had not been authorized to travel freely by road. Burns was asked to write a letter of self-criticism for infringing on travel regulations and to return by rail and air to Peking. He was then told that those steps would resolve the case, according to the Times.

McNally has left the country and it is unknown if any action is being considered against Zhang.

Foreigners may now travel to 244 open cities and areas in China, but travel to other areas requires permission from the authorities. Many areas that are off-limits to foreigners include military installations, labor camps for political prisoners and sensitive border regions.