by William Hinton. Random House, $25.00. As a teacher and tractor expert, Mr. Hinton worked in the Liberated Area of North China between 1947 and 1953. His book on his experience in the farming village of Long Bow, Fanshen, got him into trouble with the U.S. passport office, and it was not until 1971 that he was able to return to China to see what had happened to the peasants of Long Bow. That turned out to be plenty, and Mr. Hinton’s report of it is extensive, many-leveled, and fascinating. As a sympathetic observer and former resident equipped with his own interpreter, he could talk with people directly, collecting individual and sometimes eccentric accounts of local events that range from the uproar of the Cultural Revolution to the misdeeds of a formidable trickster known as Whiskers Shen. (Whiskers would be unbelievable, except that Mr. Hinton is clearly too serious a man to have invented him.) The details of life in Long Bow are incorporated into Mr. Hinton’s wider view of the whole sweep of recent Chinese history, a necessary arrangement that requires full attention from the reader. Twenty years of shifting powers and policies are a large subject, while affairs in the village are also a large subject and mightily complex. The peasants of Long Bow, a notoriously “difficult” place, are by no means automatons responding predictably to the push of some button in Peking. They cultivate all the personal grudges and ambitions usually found in small communities, and even when Peking hits the right button (not always the case) the result may be far from what was expected. Sometimes there will be no result at all, for the Long Bow farmers show considerable talent for evading what they consider impractical, and on at least one occasion, concerning a new hybrid corn, they were right. Shenfan’s subject matter is essentially very sober, but the author’s ability to evoke the presence of actual people gives the book liveliness and interest. One really comes to care about the inhabitants of Long Bow. One also comes to believe that Chinese communism is easy prey to administrative corruption, in part because it is an appallingly difficult system to operate correctly.