At 24, with pigtails and a twinkle in her eyes, Wu Lanying looks like no threat to anybody save a few unruly teen-agers she might encounter in her job as an usher at a movie theater in rustic Zhengzhou, China.

Yet Wu has perhaps the sharpest eyes and quickest hands of any woman in the world. As holder of what the Chinese say is the women's world record for skeet shooting, 194 hits out of 200 flying targets, she also wants a shot at an Olympic gold medal, the symbol of a frustrating 30-year battle by her government that now seems near victory.

If Wu, who chats with delight about "fooling around" with a little squirrel and bird shooting, is to have a chance of appearing in Moscow for the 1980 Summer Games, it is up to an elderly Irishman, Lord Killanin, president of the International Olympic Committee, who must make a crucial decision this month on how quickly the committee is to vote on the old question of Chinia versus Taiwan, the offshore island nation that has kept mainland China out of the Games for the last 30 years.

American diplomats in Washington, who have no control over how the two U.S. members of the International Olympic Committee vote, say they hope fervently the issue is settled in China's favor. Otherwise, they will be faced at the Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., with the same dipolmatic dilemma and uproar encountered by Canada in 1976 when a Taiwan team tried to enter, "and this time it will be in the middle of the primary season," said a politically tuned diplomat.

Despite their enormous population of nearly 1 billion, the Chinese are so new to international competition and so far behind in technique and diet that it may be years before they join the front ranks of Olympic medal winners like the United States and the Soviet Union, according to Chinese officials and International Olympic Committee members visiting here.

"I think there are close links between the development of sports and the development of the economy," said Song Zhong, the husky secretary general of the Chinese Olympic Comtee. "I believe that when we develop our industry and agriculture, sports will come up to the same level."

In a few Olympic events -- particularly those with military application like Wu's skeet shooting -- the Chinese have begun to display unusual talent that could bring them some small successes in Moscow. Besides several shooting events, they have reached top world standards or set world records in weightlifting, women's diving, women's gymnastics and archery.

Their men's and women's basketball and women's volleyball teams have also played well against good international competiotion. But some other sports that they already tend to dominate, like table tennis and badminton, are not Olympic events.

The national games here, only the fourth to be held in the 30 years of the People's Republic, have been given extensive coverage in the local newspapers and a television blitz worthy of the Olympics.

Wu's unusual skill with a rifle was discovered when she trained for her local militia outfit. Wu says she still works in the movie theater when not training. Since skeet shooting has no women's division, she would lead a team of both sexes to the Olympics.

Ashwini Kumar, an Indian who is one of a number of International Olympic Commitee members visiting here at Peking's invitation, said he has carefully studied the performances of Chinese gymnasts at the recently completed national games here.

"There is no doubt in my mind that they are among the best in the world," he said. "They could be on the podium for a medal."

Liu Yajun, a 95-pound dynamo who beat the Romanians in a meet in Shanghai last year, seems shy and does not say very much when asked about the Olympics.

Now 17, she has been practicing for seven years and now studies at the Physical Educational Insititute in Peking, one of a number of sports-oriented schools throughout the country that parallel the system in Russia and Eastern Europe and seem to offer hope for rapid improvement of China's best athletes. "We just want to scale the heights and bring honor to the motherland," Liu said.

Ten years ago, such sentiments might have been criticized here as far too intent on setting records and, by extension, oneself from the masses. During the cultural revolution of the late 1960s, all extraordinary individual efforts, whether in sports or basket weaving, became politically suspect in a great outpouring of egalitarian fervor inspired by Chairman Mao Tse-Tung's fear that a technical elite was taking over the country. The situation become so bad that even China's most successful and celebrated international athletes, its table tennis players, were temporarily withdrawn from international competition.

Today, particularly since Mao's death in 1976, the official press has bent over backward to revive interest in individual championship efforts and victories on an international scale.

Ma Wenguang, solid 185 pounds of muscle bunched on a 5-foot, 8-inch frame, is a middle school physical education teacher in rural Shangdong province. He has attended more than a dozen international weightlifting meets. A year ago, he visited Pittsburgh and finished ninth in a meet there. He said he enjoyed the trip to the United Sates, and likes the idea of going to Moscow, which he has not visited.

"I'd like to go, but it depends on my training and injuries," he said.

His best performances, 215-kilogram clean-and-jerk and 372.5 kilo total, were good enough to qualify for the Olympics, but they were not good enough to win a medal. In the lower weight classes, however, particularly lifters weighing less than 150 pounds the Chinese have several men who could win medals.

One lifter in the 123-pound class set a world record in Shanghai in June, although it was soon surpassed by a Bulgarian.

In the glamour events of track and field, the Chinese appear to be years behind. To compare a few Chinese national records with the winners at the 1976 Olympics: 400-meter dash -- 47.94 seconds, Olympics 44:26; 1,500 meters -- China 3 minutes 46.2 seconds, Olympics 3 minutes 39.17; long jump, China 7.86 meters, Olympics 8:35 meters; decathlon, China 7,305 points, Olympics 8,618 points.

The Chinese are willing to go to some lengths to change this. Ma, 23 has built up his muscles with the help of a diet that includes about a pound of meat a day. The peasants of his native Shandong are lucky to see that much meat in a year.

Several disputes over China's representation in the Olympics in the early 1950s were eventually decided in favor of Twaiwan, and athletes of the People's Republic have never competed in the Games. This year, however, a Chinese lobbying effort just as skilled as the one that brought Peking diplomatic recognition in almost all world capitals has brought the Olympic movement to the brink of welcoming China in and leaving Taiwan the choice of competing incognito or not at all.

At the annual meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Uruguay in April, the perplexed delegates tentatively approved a formula to allow two Olympic committees, the Chinese Peking committee and the Chinese Taiwan committee, into the fold. The Chinese rejected this out of hand. Armed with a mandate from the full committee to negotiate the matter, the committee executive board in June arrived at a formula that satisfied Peking but engraged Taiwan.

Under the formula conceived at the board's Puerto Rico meeting, China would compete in the Games as the People's Republic of China, using its flag and anthem and with its sports federation called the Chinese Olympic Committee. Taiwan athletes could compete only under the name of Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee. They could not use their small nation's official name, the Republic of China, and could not use its present flag or national anthem. Peking objected to Taiwan's name, flag and anthem as those used by the Nationalist government that once ruled on the mainland, but now is considered by Peking as old regime supplanted by their own.

In September, Taiwan flatly rejected the formula, calling it illegal and discriminatory and thus hinting it might attempt a legal challenge if the International Olympic Committee went through with it.

"A faithful member, long recognized by the International Olympic Committee, the Chinese Olympic Committee (what Taiwan calls its group) has the same rights and privileges as any other International Olympic Committee member to use name, flag and anthem," Taiwan said.

Song applauds the formula, and hints darkly that if the U.S. government allows a Taiwan team to appear at Lake Placid using its name, flag and anthem, "it's a violation of the principles of the normalization of our relations." Canada, faced with the same dilemma in 1976 when Taiwan was an Olympic member in good standing, refused to admit the Nationalist Chinese athletes unless they agreed to a similar formula. The taiwan team boycotted the Games.

The committee executive board is currently meeting in Nagoya, Japan, to thrash the issue out once more. The formula must be approved by the full 89-member committee, either in a special meeting that many members consider too expensive and time-consuming, or in a much easier postal vote. But some committee members unhappy with the formula are arguing that the issue is too important to leave to a postal vote, which could delay the issue until it is too late for the 1980 Games.

Song accuses one of the two American members, Julian K. Roosevelt, of favoring this delay. "You know, the president of the United States Roosevelt, the Chinese people felt was a rather enlightened president, but this nephew of his is rather contrary to that," Song said. He said he made a special trip to New York earlier this year to persuade Roosevelt, but received no positive response during their meeting.

Despite its statements Taiwan still may accept the formula, Song argued. In West Berlin this summer, he said, Taiwan athletes appeared at an international archery meet despite the fact that the West German government prohibited them from using the name Republic of China, or their flag and anthem."They did not take part in the opening ceremonies and when someone asked why, they said they had been delayed. But what were their athletes doing? They were out shopping," Song said.

Under the Olympic rules, Killanin has the power to ease china's way into the Games by calling a postal vote on his own authority. Members who have visited China recently said they sense Kilanin favors resolving the issue. They think a vote will go in Peking's favor.

But what will happen to the athletes from Taiwan, a nation of 17 million, still concerns them. "The object of the movement is to let all the boys and girls in together, so I have been against kicking anyone out," said Jan Staubo, the Norwegian member of the committee.

Kumar, a champion field hockey player on the Indian team in his day, has also watched Peking's budding team and remembers great disappointment at the end of his playing career. "I remember how bitter we felt when we were going to go to the 1940 Games. And then the war came and we never had another chance. By the time the war ended, we were over the hill."