Present-day China in the light of the distant and recent past: the companion volume to a forthcoming PBS series, to begin on May 6, in the exploratory tradition of Civilisation and its BBC ilk, on which writer Clayre and director Peter Montagnon worked. What first strikes the peruser of China-books, however, is the atypical grounding of this typically sumptuous volume: the chronological table, dynastic maps, and list of names in pinyin and the older Wade-Giles form at the outset; the source notes at the close. Next, one notices the absence of the pre-packaged images--the adorable tots, the misty landscapes, the ancient monuments--of the Seventies. Here crowds clamber down to a Buddha's foot, an artist paints (""every day"") the one-eyed owl Mme. Mao took as an insult during the Cultural Revolution, a mother weeps over the young gift-child whom she feared her husband would kill. The book begins with an intelligent summary of Chinese history (""Remembering""), contrasting the benevolent Confucian and fierce Qin Shihuang strains, and expanding on 20th-century puzzlements: the failed but epochal 1911 Revolution, the intertwined psychology and politics of Mao. Sub-sequent sections take up themes that are more than topics--Believing, Marrying, Mediating, Eating, Correcting, Trading--and move regularly from traditional practices to current concerns. ""Eating,"" for instance, explains the benefits of the wok (in saving scarce fuel, in preserving flavors and nutrients) and the indispensability of soup (for one thing, ""Chinese water is generally undrinkable without boiling""). ""Mediating"" deals not only with social control but with treatment (once, maltreatment) of the mentally ill. The selection of pictures--Tang scrolls to vintage photographs to propaganda and advertising posters--is outstanding: the last dowager empress, with monstrous fingernails, opposite a spiffy, Western-garbed Sun Yat-sen and spouse; a rooftop view of workers' housing, adjacent to their workplace (""one of the continuities between village life and urban life in China""); ""a diagram of the world's first seismoscope, or earthquake detector, built by Zhang Hang in 132 A.D."" But for all the detail, there is strong definition: ""China's historical success has perhaps been in maintaining control of a state with limited aims over a society with limited expectations."" The outcome of higher expectations, Clayre concludes, is unguessable. The series should be splendid; the book is worth consulting and possessing.