Wang Baohan left his native Sichuan at 15, seeking his fortune on construction sites and in factories along China's roaring east coast. By the time he was 20, he was lugging boxes of American oranges and chicken parts for government functionaries who amassed millions by smuggling, eluding the customs duties they were supposed to collect.

Returning here to Sichuan province, Wang wanted to till the land of his ancestors in the landscape of craggy mountains with bamboo forests and communities with names like Gold Mountain village and Green Dragon township. But once again, he found local officials getting rich by abusing the rules -- taxing him for repairing his own house, for the number of pigs he bred, for building a road.

That is when the disillusionment set in.

"In elementary school I remember all these lessons that the [Communist] Party and the government would provide for us and protect us and, well, basically the idea was that they were like our parents and we could stay children for the rest of our lives," Wang recalled. "Hey, I went to Guangdong and lived in a shack on a construction site with 12 other guys in a tiny room. There was no party there. There were no police there when trouble happened. No one was protecting me but me.

"I was taught to believe in the party," he added, stroking the shiny head of his newborn son. "But I really believe in me."

Wang's coming of age sums up the experience of millions of Chinese as their nation marks its 50th anniversary as a communist state: The loosening of rigid party authority, the crumbling of communist ideology, an unprecedented freedom to pack your bags to look for work and the raw uncertainties that have come with opportunity are producing a frenzied search for new rules to live by.

Across China, people are struggling to redefine notions of success and failure, right and wrong, good and evil. The quest for something to believe in has become so universal and profound that it is one of the unifying characteristics of life in China today. Farmers talk about it, migrant workers in China's cities talk about it. It is a preoccupation of intellectuals, students and members of the new business class.

To fill the void once occupied by the all-encompassing system instituted in 1949 by Mao Zedong, Chinese have turned in every direction. Some have embraced money, sex or work; others drugs, crime, religion, ultranationalist cults, rock-and-roll, and even Western liberalism and Wild West capitalism.

The seemingly overnight explosion in popularity of the Buddhist-like Falun Gong sect, which had at least 10 million members at the time it was outlawed in July, is mirrored in the growth of other, even more arcane spiritual organizations.

The search for meaning has led many to look backward, into China's past. Ancestor worship is sweeping the south, where some communities spend more on building temples than on irrigation systems. In the wood-paneled bistros of Shanghai, there is palpable nostalgia for the Roaring Twenties, when the metropolis -- known as the "Paris" or the "Whore" of the East -- set a standard for decadence.

The search has drawn some to seek political change, supporting a more liberal system that encourages dissent.

"The government tells us that the problem is with the quality of the officials, but I think it is a problem with the system," said a pear farmer named Li, whose village was invaded last Nov. 26 by 740 riot police seeking to arrest three men who had called for village elections, which are mandated under Chinese law. "We need an opposition party here, or some type of objective structure to oversee the party. . . . I don't trust them anymore."

Party Failures

China's Communist Party rose to power with the support of farmers like those here in Guang'an county, in Sichuan province 850 miles southwest of Beijing. A revolutionary named Deng Xiaoping was born in Guang'an in 1904 and later fought Japanese invaders and the Nationalists who opposed the Communist revolution. In 1978, Deng started an economic revolution by opening China's door to the world.

In its 50th anniversary festivities this week, the Communist Party will take credit for the many advances since 1978; the gross domestic product, for example, has more than tripled. But people like Wang Baohan, who took the risk of seeking his fortune on the coast and decided on his own to return to make a life here, say the credit should go to them.

"Definitely life has improved," he said, sitting on a stool outside his recently refurbished house. "But it's not like the party says. It's not like they've done anything for us. It's just that they stopped blocking us."

In the 1980s, after decades of trying to control nearly every aspect of people's lives, the government lifted travel bans that had prohibited farmers from leaving their villages. When he left Sichuan, Wang joined more than 100 million people estimated to be on the move every day in China in search of new experiences and a better life. Workers from Sichuan sent home $2.34 billion in 1996, equal to the entire provincial income.

Wang said his experience on the road was reinforced by things he has seen at home, where the government and the party are receding from everyday life. Sometimes the government's fading role pleases Wang. But in other ways it infuriates him.

If farmers here want better schools for their children, they must now pay for them. They are expected to keep up irrigation systems that the government used to maintain. Hospitals charge large fees -- basically bribes -- for access to medical care that used to be ensured by the government. The new rules mean Wang can sell pigs for profit in the market, but he has to pay a tax of about $10 a head.

Wang said he would not mind the bills if he knew where the money was going, but the new taxes are not accompanied by any financial disclosure. He and others say they assume that local officials are stealing it. Last year, for example, family planning officials in Wang's township collected about $60,000 in fines from couples who had more children than allowed by law. About $57,000 disappeared, local sources said.

China's one-child policy is falling apart in the countryside, home to three-fourths of the nation's 1.3 billion people, where two-child families are the norm. The new de facto rule is that farming couples are allowed two chances to have a son. A third chance can usually be purchased with a bribe.

The collapse of the communist guarantee of lifetime care is one factor contributing to a resurgence of the traditional desire for male offspring, suppressed during the years of strict government control from 1949 to 1978. There has been a boom in male births during the past 20 years because of the killing of female newborns and sex-selective abortions, as couples seek male heirs to support them in old age.

Search for Faith

For an increasing number of Chinese, the search for meaning leads to places like the small brick room down a Beijing alley where Allen Yuan holds evangelical prayer meetings several times a week. Despite his age, the rail-thin 85-year-old preacher, who spent 22 years in jail because of his faith, maintains the religious fervor that has made him a leader of China's booming movement in house churches.

"If you just believe, everything is possible," Yuan sang to 50 people who squeezed into the room on a recent evening, near a Buddhist shrine from the times of Kublai Khan in the 13th century. In the congregation were Communist Party members, low-level government officials and, undoubtedly, secret police.

Moses Yu, a 28-year-old unemployed college graduate, said he "came to Jesus" only recently. He appeared slightly embarrassed about his faith.

"I had a major shock in my life and Jesus came to me," said Yu, a bespectacled, earnest man who looks much older than his years. "I needed to believe."

Fifty years after Western missionaries were expelled by the Communist government, religion is again blossoming. The massive nationwide crackdown the government launched in July against the Falun Gong movement, which combines aspects of martial arts with meditation and spiritual training, reflects the party's concern that its authority can be threatened by rival faiths.

Since 1996, in Hunan province alone, authorities have disbanded 10,000 sects and imprisoned at least 10,000 leaders, the state press reported recently.

The government is particularly alarmed about widespread participation of party members in religious activities, contrary to party rules. Several retired generals, one of China's last living marshals, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and the head of China's sports federation were linked to Falun Gong. The Black Dragon Pool temple in Shanxi is a favorite of party members seeking spiritual solace. Christian preachers report that party members regularly attend secret prayer meetings.

Curiously, the one religion that appears to be faring poorly is the one the Communist government has attempted to promote: home-grown Confucianism, which, in its communist version, teaches submission to authority. In a recent study by Asian social scientists comparing Japan, South Korea and China, Chinese were found to possess fewer Confucian characteristics -- such as a respect for their elders, respect for the law and respect for the government -- than people in the other countries.

Crime and Corruption

The Chinese are fond of summing up their views in popular couplets. One of today's sayings observes: "As all are on the take, then let us take from all."

Since 1978 and particularly in the past five years, crime has skyrocketed. Most prominent has been crime involving the government. The State Statistical Bureau reported recently that 17 percent of all bank deposits, totaling $121 billion, hold public money hidden in private accounts -- suggesting massive theft by corrupt officials.

Endemic corruption has erased one of the founding images of the Communist Party, which took power partly because it was able to portray itself as an incorruptible political movement in contrast to the forces of Chiang Kai-shek's ruling Nationalist Party. Today, official graft has inspired a different type of emulation.

Near the Holiday Inn in Chongqing, a large city in Sichuan province, a string of massage parlors masquerading as barber shops and restaurants lines a shady street. A man who identified himself as Li Peng, perhaps as a dig at the head of parliament, who has the same name, sat down at a foreigner's table the other evening and offered a girl.

"Hey, foreigner," he said, "I've got the best you can imagine -- virgins, experienced pros. They're cheap and they're ready for you. Come try one."

Li is 33, a former low-level bureaucrat from the Sichuanese countryside who moved to the city a decade ago. He said most of his profit comes from selling women from his home county of Zigong to unwed farmers around China.

"They all like Sichuan girls," he said, with a laugh that exposed two teeth encased in gold. "They know how to manage a family."

Li's business -- he says he earns more than $2,000 a month -- is supported, he said, by officials from Zigong, who take a cut of his profits, and by officials in counties where the women are sent, who realize that more married men make for a more stable society.

"I'm helping everybody," he said. "Even the women are happy."

Asked about his values, he cracked another luminous smile.

"I've got a nice watch, I've got an Audi. If I don't screw somebody, they're going to screw me. That's what modern China means to me."

Private Business

The stones under Wang Qishan's drive-in movie theater in a Beijing suburb have a prominent place in recent Chinese history. Ten years ago, tanks from the People's Liberation Army rumbled over them during the crackdown on democracy supporters demonstrating in Tiananmen Square. Wang bought the stones at a bargain price from the city government during the renovation of the square for the 50th anniversary celebrations.

Wang, 36, was once a metalworker in a state-owned factory in the heart of China's northern rust belt in Shenyang. He is now at the forefront of the creation of a new value system that rejects the ideals of the communist state and revels in risk and profit.

Before 1949, Wang's father owned a large restaurant in Shenyang. The Communists expropriated it and made Wang's father a cook. When Wang decided to "jump into the sea" of business, his father fought the decision for fear that his son would suffer the same fate.

"My father said, `In this life I can only give you one thing, a hereditary job in a state-owned firm where you can work for your whole life. How can you not take it?' But I looked at his life, looked at the $250 that he had spent a whole life working to save for the weddings of me and my three siblings, and I thought: No way."

Wang's first business followed in his father's footsteps: a four-table dive called the Great Wall Cafe in Shenyang. In those days, private businessmen were at the bottom of China's social scale.

"It was the early '80s," Wang said, "people looked down on us private guys. They thought we were bandits. While everyone else was going to work without a care, I was out there pushing a tricycle piled high with vegetables, sweating, trying to make a few bucks. I was the worst thing you could be in China at the time. I was outside the system."

But Wang clawed his way to wealth. Society, too, has changed. Today, state-run television is doing a documentary on his business.

In 1993, China's parliament passed a law allowing private schools. Wang founded the Yingqiao Private School, which sits on several acres of land just opposite the beach in the resort town of Beidaihe. With a tuition of about $2,000 a year, it is a school for the offspring of the newly rich.

Zhang Li teaches English there. An award-winning public school instructor, she quit her state job last year for a chance to work at Yingqiao, even though it promised her no pension, medical insurance or other benefits. To lure her, the school offered Zhang 10 times her salary of $70 a month.

"So that, of course, was a big reason," she said. "But another one was that I could leave the old society behind. This is the best chance I'll ever have to prove the worth of my life. I feel a pressure here, a sense of urgency. I like that."

It is a message of independence, Zhang said, that she imparts to her students.

`Coolest . . . in China'

In 1987, when Mian Mian was 17, she junked the chance to go to college and traveled to Shenzhen, a boomtown in southern China, where another set of values was being born.

Shenzhen was a social and psychological borderland where Chinese eager to shed the constraints of communism could experiment with capitalism, social freedoms, sex, excess. In the other China, politics drove everything. In Shenzhen, cash was king.

Mian Mian fell in with a fast crowd. Her friends included prostitutes and pimps, debt collectors and deadbeats, thieves, cops and drug dealers. (Some of the dealers have been executed.) She said she once had her head shaved by thugs, worked in an exclusive night club and lost her virginity in a date rape. And, for three years, she was a heroin addict.

With the 1995 publication of her short story, "La, La, La," which recounts the life of a 17-year-old girl who dabbles in heroin and bisexuality, Mian Mian became the voice of the cutting edge of hip Chinese society. It is a circle that has dealt with the Puritan restrictions of communist morality by ignoring rather than confronting them.

Mian Mian's work and the life and friends that swirl around her -- rave parties, a gay singer named Coco, Taiwanese temptresses, Spanish lovers, the occasional joint -- are set against a backdrop of China's greatest city, Shanghai. Dressed in trademark black, her tough-but-tender face framed in a geometric bob, Mian Mian acknowledged that her biggest goal is "to be the coolest person in China."

"You know," added the 29-year-old author, spinning a tornado of cigarette smoke over a slice of chocolate cake at a Shanghai restaurant called Le Garcon Chinois, "Chinese could be the coolest people in the world."

In some ways, you would think it's true. There is ferment in China's cities. They contain all the ingredients of a cultural explosion: nonstop social change, stark contrasts, unprecedented freedoms, huge gaps between rich and poor, countryside and city, men and women. Some Chinese say they feel a cultural renaissance approaching.

But so far, China has been a cultural disappointment. Government restrictions continue to stifle creativity. "All Chinese writers are born with a sword in their heads," Mian Mian said, speaking of the self-censorship that affects even her freewheeling work. "My dream is to pull mine out."

Mian Mian's parents have supported her, continue to pay her phone bill and rent on a Shanghai apartment and provide her with pocket cash.

"Using my value system, her books aren't really that attractive to me," said her father, Wang Zhongquan, an earnest, 64-year-old engineer. "But the language is beautiful. I have a different viewpoint than her, but I respect her work."

At one point, when she was deep into heroin, Mian Mian's father offered her a choice: Take a large payment from the family and he would no longer recognize her as his daughter, or go into a detox program. Mian Mian checked into a hospital.

"She has taken many detours in her life," he said. "I didn't agree with them, but I could do nothing to stop her. I worry about my parenting. Was the method I used correct? Should I have been tougher?"

In Mian Mian's family, faith is an important issue as well.

"I wish I had beliefs and ideals," she said at one point. Her mother is a Christian, and her sister, who lives in Australia, is a Buddhist. Asked what her father believes, Mian Mian's mother blurted out: "Him, he believes in cash."