A short time ago the American public was privy to live glimpses of China, thanks to the President's visit and the entourage of newsmen and cameras with him. What nags, however, is how much truth did the pictures and the Cronkites convey? were able to convey? Peking Square and the Great Wall and weren't the gymnasts fantastic, but was it the real China? Ross Terrill cautions us at the outset that there are actually ""two Chinas"": not ""Taiwan"" and the ""Mainland"" but rather ""the image we have of China in the United States, and the reality of China."" His account of 40 days spent in the People's Republic during the summer of 1971 is an attempt to zero in on the true China; and by the only valid criteria for judgment -- reportorial acuity and honesty -- Terrill has succeeded handsomely. ""China is comprehensively organized, but not perfectly organized -- certainly not to Japanese pitch,"" he writes. ""The ragged edges, the ragamuffin element, the expansive gesture, have happily not been organized out of existence."" Terrill admires the cultural ""confidence"" of the Chinese ""which pads them against the rougher consequences of history's crimes and chaos,"" and as an Australian Socialist (he traveled as both an adviser to Labor Party Leader Gough Whitlam and as a visiting Harvard professor teaching at the East Asian Research Center), he finds much good in the Communist revolution but there is also doubt, ambivalence, malaise: ""There is a rule by phrase, a bond in headlines, a solidarity by syntax, in the beginning was the Word. . . . It is intellectual incest on a gargantuan scale. . . . Ultimately, the point of the propaganda is to make equal citizens of the entire 800,000,000. . . . Of course it is 'dull' for the spender or the adventurer,"" says Terrill, but ""Justice is not necessarily exciting."" The quest for the real China moves on -- through interviews with the people, visits to factory universities (""The Chinese nation is studying as if for some cosmic examination"") and cultural events, analyses of foreign policy objectives (""It is not a restless nation keen to prove itself in ambitious worldwide schemes. . . something in the Chinese way damps down the lust and swagger of Marxism""), and why the Nixon visit (which was announced while Terrill was in China). When a portion of this was published in the Atlantic Monthly, Dr. John K. Fairbank, no mean Sinologist himself, called it ""the best piece of reporting from China since the late '40's""; perhaps even more remarkable is that Terrill is able to shatter the picture-worth-a-thousand-words adage.