In two short years--1976 and '77--China underwent a great transformation, the full extent of which remains unclear. Harvard's Ross Terrill, who scored beyond scholarly circles with his popular 800,000,000: The Real China (1972), tries to assess the effects of those years on China's future. In 1976-77, Chou En-lai, Chu Teh, and Mao himself all died; Mao's wife, Chiang Ch'ing, and three comrades (the ""Gang of Four"") first rose, then fell in a bid to replace the Chairman; Hua Kuo-feng, little known previously, became Mao's successor; Teng Hsiaop'ing was purged for the second time, only to return to power under Hua; and a massive earthquake claimed up to 650,000 lives. Terrill examines and weighs each of these events, but it is the political resurrection of Teng that receives the greatest attention--not because of Teng himself (though his story is interesting), but because of what he represents: a more ""pragmatic"" approach to socialism, involving a greater emphasis on economic development at the cost, if necessary, of ""ideological"" precepts like equality. Terrill sees signs of a more stable, accessible China in the offing, leaving the impression that a great social experiment--""Mao's China""--may be over. He clearly favors Teng's moderation, but he also admires many aspects of the more radical past, like widespread participation and balanced growth. He tries to reconcile these views by seeing ""Tengism"" as one strand which has run through Chinese history since the first efforts to ""Westernize"" the country, and therefore as something of a logical follow-up to the previous period--an interpretation Mao would not have shared. The prospects are for efforts to raise the standard of living and toward detente with the Soviet Union. A seasoned China-watcher will not find a lot that is startling here, but as a writer of popular, serious books on contemporary China, Terrill is still ahead of the field.