A beautiful day for a wedding — crisp, clear and, for China in midsummer, relatively cool. The latest typhoon’s high winds have swept away the air pollution, and under a brilliant blue sky the guests are chatting in the hollow of a terraced field beside a single spindly tree — symbolic decoration in a country whose scant arable land continues to disappear. Arranged neatly alongside the makeshift altar, the gifts intended for the bride’s parents include a new refrigerator, a 24-in. color television set and a jet black Yamaha motorcycle. The presents are ogled, but atop the TV a photograph of Margaret Thatcher creates the greatest buzz, a reaction the bride, and perhaps the groom too, would undoubtedly have enjoyed. Were they still alive. As the other guests prattle on about the British Prime Minister, some even in English, the new language of the New China, I am transfixed by the marriage of the two coffins in front of me. The groom died in an automobile accident five days earlier at the age of 23. The body of his bride, dead of cancer for five months, cost $3 to exhume. They had never met. After exhausting their fascination with Margaret Thatcher, a few of the guests allow as how, yes, one might think that marrying dead people is bizarre. But as an occasional feature of life in these parts for longer than anyone can remember, “ghost marriages” are just another relic of ancient China, another relatively harmless superstition for a billion people struggling to jerk themselves toward the 21st century. Strange, surely, but about the only truly odd tradition I encounter during five weeks in China. By plane, train and car, from the prospering coastal provinces to the country’s heartland, where the agricultural reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping ten years ago began a miraculous economic transformation, to Beijing and a village not far from the capital that is infinitely poorer than towns a thousand miles farther inland, I find little that is charming or especially exotic. Just a mostly drab and dusty country, a perfect backdrop for the tedious and too often unrewarding nature of daily life. Still, the people seem energetic, if fitful; a fifth of the world’s population in a cage. Good, hardworking people who deserve better than the suffocating Communism that limits their enterprise. In the end, the place still looms, as it always has. China is the stuff of our earliest memories, the faraway land where children were starving , so we had better finish our dinners. The place we could reach by digging deep in our sandboxes; a measure of size ; a country whose mere name conjured mystery and intrigue. Over the past decade, we rooted for a successful conclusion to China’s long march away from a Communism that sometimes seemed even more menacing than Nikita Khrushchev’s — he of the take-no-prisoners promise to “bury” us. We suspected that real success might produce an economic giant capable of dwarfing even our ally Japan, but we rooted anyway. And of course, since Tiananmen Square, we have wondered what went so drastically wrong. How could any regime shoot unarmed citizens in its own capital, an action violative of a rule of governance so obvious that not even Machiavelli felt compelled to write it down?