A peasant's son born 100 years ago today, Mao Tse-tung was the 20th century's greatest revolutionary and conceivably its most inept ruler. Millions of Chinese might have lived if he had grasped a golden opportunity to reconcile China after his triumph, rather than tear it apart.

A dreamer, classical poet and military genius, he led a peasant army to victory in 1949 and became the father of the People's Republic of China.He created the first true revolution in China's long history. But disaster followed when he attempted to dismantle the state and replace it with a mixture of Marxism and his own fuzzy populist ideas.

If he had stepped aside after ushering in the People's Republic and allowed the Communist Party's more level-headed thinkers to run things, he would be remembered today with warmth and enthusiasm rather than grudging respect by some old-timers and a mixture of distrust and contempt by China's more liberal young.

Though he confessed to having a weak head for figures, he rebuffed the party realists, headed by Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, then insisted on introducing wild schemes to turn China into an industrial giant overnight and purge its millions of their bourgeois leanings. Millions died in these bitter convulsions, which he dubbed the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

When I knew him, in the mid-1940s, he seemed a saner and more sensible man. He was committed to seeking rapprochement with his old enemy, Chiang Kai-shek, and establishing a coalition government with the generalissimo's Kuomintang. I spent seven months reporting from Yanan, Mao's cave capital next to the Gobi Desert, on U.S. Army Gen. George Marshall's intense, but failed, efforts to bring the two together and avoid civil war.

I saw Mao almost daily during this critical 1945-47 negotiation period and then, after his 1949 victory, covered his 27 turbulent, chaotic, mad years of power. The insanity he, and his vengeful wife, Jiang Qing, imposed on an exhausted China ended only with his death and her imprisonment in 1976.

The Mao of the 1940s was at the peak of his mental powers. But the lean youth who helped create the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 had, after years of struggle and hardship, turned physically soft and flabby in his 50s.

His moonlike face was unlined, his hands, grasping mine, long, tapering and free of callouses. Yet, one sensed the cold iron underneath, the iron that had brought him through the epic Long March retreat from the east coast to Yanan in the 1930s and a hundred other political and military battles.

Dressed in a worn and patched high-collared Mao jacket, wearing cloth shoes, he looked like a country bumpkin compared to the elegantly uniformed Chiang whom I had met earlier in Chungking.

There was an aura or power and authority about Mao that set him apart from his comrades. In a crowded room, in patches or not, he stood out from those around him. He kept his closest comrades at arm's length.

During our first interview in the Spartan, mud-and-wattle house that replaced his old cave after the war, he was outwardly amiable. He peered intently into my eyes while he talked. But I felt, uneasily, that he was placing me under the microscope of his mind to classify me as friend, enemy or, as it happened, merely neutral in my attitude toward the ideas he rep-re-sented.

Haughty, aloof, a man with few friends and a belief, bordering on paranoia, that everyone conspired against him, Mao lacked the charisma of his chief lieutenant, Chou En-lai, the warmth of his military commander, Zhu De, or the shy friendliness of the No. 2 party leader, Liu Shaoqi, all of whom were in Yanan when I was there.

A cruel father and a difficult early teacher bred in him the spirit of rebellion that led naturally to revolution. He was undoubtedly moved, like his contemporaries, by the poverty, backwardness and colonial bondage under which the China of the 1920s labored. In the first years of his rule, he righted many wrongs, improved China's health and economy, and gave it an independence from foreign domination it had not known for more than a century.

He had a golden chance in 1949 to heal the wounds of the civil war, but his personal insecurity prompted him to choose struggle over reconciliation.

He proclaimed hatred - of one's enemies, the United States and the Western world, the bourgeoisie, the Kuomintang, intellectuals - a more powerful and more desirable emotion than love.

He had thought, before coming to power, of sparing China's landlords when he introduced land reform. But when the time came, he encouraged "speak bitterness" mass trials that cost millions of them, some no richer than anyone else, their lives.

Fear and hatred of the United States prodded him into sending hundreds of thousands of "volunteers" into the Korean War of 1950-53, where many died.

He then turned to his own people, the intellectuals and overseas Chinese who had returned to help the new China. Labeling them "rightists," he killed some, imprisoned more and stripped countless thousands of engineers, architects, doctors, teachers - the skilled men and women he needed most - of their pride and their jobs.

Though he knew next to nothing about economics, he undertook a new folly, a nationwide push to industrialize a country still in the Middle Ages. Called the Great Leap Forward, it marshaled China's enthusiastic but unskilled millions in a race to increase steel output through backyard furnaces. Production indeed rose, but the steel was flawed.

Failure of the Great Leap - three successive bad harvests, rigged production figures and Soviet opposition contributed - plunged China into a famine that killed millions.

Confronted with this catastrophe, the more practical members of the party, led by Liu and Deng, took over. For seven years, Mao sat on the sidelines, outwardly respected but powerless.

The realists rescued China from the brink by putting agriculture first, rather than heavy industry as Mao had done. China might have become then what it is today if they had prevailed.

The quarrel that divided the party began while I was in Yanan. It was a fight not over the end, which was communist socialism, but the means. The first principle of Marxism is redistribution of weath. The party agreed that since China had none to redistribute, it would create wealth by undergoing a relatively long period of controlled capitalism and limited democracy.

Mao told me on several occasions he subscribed totally to this idea. But by the Great Leap Forward, seduced by the hope he could realize communism in his lifetime, he ditched the party line. Faith, he said, would move mountains and get China into the promised land.

Jiang Qing, Mao's wife, was a woman scorned. She resented playing second fiddle to Liu's wife, elevated to the rank of first lady when Liu became chief of state.

From Shanghai, where she recruited some docile followers, she launched her campaign to restore Mao and his challenged ideas to power. In the process she planned to wreak vengeance on those who had crossed her during her days as a second-rate, leftist actress in the same city. From the mild-mannered housewife I had known in Yanan, she became the overbearing scold of the Cultural Revolution that followed.

Mao, rejuvenated, said its objective was to purify the party. But its real aim was to crush the Liu-Deng pragmatists.

Though they controlled the army, the party and the government, the pragmatists were paralyzed, like flies before a spider, by the web of Marxist mumbo-jumbo Mao threw over them. Still true believers, they became victims of their own propaganda, readily confessed their sins.

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For 10 years, China descended into chaos during which Liu died in prison, Deng was twice purged, and more millions were tortured and died at the hands of the young and fanatic Red Guards.

Freed at last by Mao's death, Deng put into place the free market economy and the political reforms that the "Great Helmsman" had so vehemently opposed. Their success so far suggests Mao was wrong and the pragmatists right, a conclusion reached through much unnecessary bloodshed.

But, despite all the changes, the memory of Mao will not go away. Like most dreamers, he lived in an unreal world, one in which imagination reigned. He was a quixotic figure, extravagantly romantic, impractical, a visionary. Because these are qualities much valued by the Chinese, he seems likely, despite his terrible faults, to become the stuff of legend.

John Roderick, who retired as an AP special correspondent in 1984, is the author of a just-published book, "Covering China," Imprint Publications, Chicago.

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