Whichever way China goes after the dust of recent upheavals settles, we'll have Orville Schell's books to remind us--with a forthrightness few other ""foreign guests"" can match--of the way it incredibly was. Here, Schell recalls the attraction of an inaccessible China to an undergraduate in the Fifties, and the appeal of its ""purity and defiance."" He is one to whom, unblinkingly, ""China seemed a hopeful land apart,"" In 1975, finally gaining entrance--the visit which In the People's Republic describes--he found the Chinese ""aloof and unapproachable,"" the constraints suffocating; but, cognizant of China's past emasculation by foreigners, he could understand Mao's attempt ""to cast a protective membrane around his people."" Now it is 1978, and returning to China is like entering a different country. At Peking's fringe Peace Cafe, Schell meets Establish-the-People Wang, People's Liberation Army soldier and procurer; in Shanghai's vast People's Square, he's hailed by a flashy biker, garbed in ""LEVIS"" (complete to label) he made himself--""like a man enclosed in an isolated room trying to sketch the full dimensions of the outside world . . . through a keyhole."" And in Dairen, Schell finds a Free Market booming--without thought to its effect on the classless society or the collectivist ethic. But if Schell himself has some regrets and hesitations (if Mao's precepts took so little hold, ""what about this new infatuation?""), he also learns, now, what the Chinese lived through--from radiant Mulan, sent to Inner Mongolia at 15; from elderly Huang, jailed ""right after liberation in 1949""--and appreciates the unresolved contradiction, articulated by Mulan, ""between the need to serve one's country and one's self."" Ironically intercut with Schell's experiences in China are episodes from the 1979 American travels of Vice-Premier Deng--like Deng patting an LTD approvingly at the Ford Atlanta plant and donning a cowboy hat clownishly in Texas . . . while a spokesman nimbly sidesteps Schell's pointed questions. Maybe, he concludes, ""The capacity to consign failure to oblivion is China's greatest asset."" Brief, rich, and splendidly written.