WHEN three Chinese-American researchers set out to compare the values held by the people in China with those held dear in the United States, their expectations of the two nations in which each had lived were clear: the Cultural Revolution would have broken down China's traditional values, but still it would be the Chinese who were more conservative and traditional, who valued their parents and their ancestors, who expected wives to be obedient. What they discovered was a shock. Their surveys, which they also compared with findings from Taiwan and Korea, found a nation where family values were strong, where ''a house full of children and grandchildren'' was widely endorsed, where wifely obedience and filial devotion were valued. But it wasn't China. ''It was an eye opener,'' says the project co-ordinator, Shanghai-born Dr Godwin Chu, now a senior fellow at the East-West Centre in Honolulu. ''Many people have talked about it, this damage, but our book is the first concrete documentation of how extensive was the damage caused by the Cultural Revolution in China,'' says Dr Chu, who left China for Taiwan in 1949. He was amazed at the conservatism of the American interviewees, though he says for his colleague Dr Zhongdan Pan, who grew up in China but is now a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, the finding that Americans and people in China accepted submission to authority equally bore out a gut feeling. ''He even felt Americans are more submissive to authority than in China. And I have been in the States for 30 years, at the East-West Centre more than 20 years and oh, the submissiveness, you really have to personally feel it.'' Dr Chu, Dr Pan, Dr Yanan Ju, who was doing research at the East-West Centre at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre and didn't go back to China, and their Anglo-American colleague Professor Steven Chaffee have written a book, To See Ourselves, about their US-China comparison, to be published shortly in the US by Westview Press. In it they portray a China in which the Cultural Revolution dislodged Confucian values held dear for centuries - values that still grip Taiwan and Korea - and an America in which a conservative heart beats beneath an apparently liberal surface. ''The image of these two countries has been shattered by our findings,'' they say in their book. ''On some key values, contemporary China resembles the United States more than it does the two other Asian nations we examined here, Taiwan and Korea. ''The latter two are much more clearly Confucian in their general support for most of the traditional value items in the questionnaires. China seems to be in a transitional state, not so much moving in the direction of the West [as represented here by the United States] as in its own direction.'' Their expectations of the China in which they grew up were not borne out: ''Our data have provided us with many surprises and findings that we consider quite substantial. We began with an assumption that there existed in China at least the remnants of an integrated structure of values corresponding to the traditional teachings of Confucius. This we did not find.'' What they did find was an American conservatism Professor Chaffee had warned of: ''I argued from the start that the US was more traditional than all these Chinese colleagues think it is. ''They say, 'we hear so much about decaying traditional values' and I said that is because traditional values are very strong. If you moralise about their decay you will get elected.'' THE Americans found traditional Confucian values both meaningful and acceptable - in fact, although Americans have more permissive attitudes to pre-marital sex, they were much more likely than the Chinese to endorse wifely obedience. The findings from China on male-female relationships and family values showed just how much traditions there had broken down. Far fewer Chinese than Koreans or Taiwanese endorsed chastity for women and wifely obedience and only one in five approved of glory to ancestors, compared with 70-90 per cent in Korea and Taiwan. ''We expected the Chinese to emphasise traditional Chinese values more than the American respondents. There is some evidence supporting this expectation, but most of our findings point in the opposite direction,'' the researchers say. ''A slightly higher proportion of Chinese endorsed the obligation to take care of ageing parents. But a significantly higher proportion of Chinese respondents expressed readiness to accept divorce when children were not a consideration.'' More Americans endorsed the Confucian ''benevolent fathers and filial sons'' value - a legacy of children being urged to denounce ''Reactionary'' parents during the Cultural Revolution, the researchers say. ''In the United States there was a much wider endorsement of the value of 'a house full of children and grandchildren' than was found in any of the three Asian countries'' - probably a function of wide promotion of family planning in Asia. Dr Chu says he was surprised how strong traditional values remain in Taiwan and Korea: ''It means that if you don't mess around with these traditional values and let the culture evolve by itself, these values are not going to change that much. They are the basic core of the Chinese culture, it takes something as drastic as the Cultural Revolution to change that hold.'' The researchers met through the Chaffee connection: Professor Chaffee, 58, is Professor of International Communication at Stanford University in California; Dr Pan, who is from Beijing and whose family was sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, was one of the professor's students while doing his masters degree at Stanford; Dr Chu shared an office with Professor Chaffee while doing his PhD. It was Dr Chu, a former teacher at Fudan University in Shanghai, who decided to study Chinese values. ''With all those years of class struggle you would not expect the traditional Chinese culture to remain unchanged,'' he says. Professor Chaffee says the project was a deeply personal one: ''Godwin is a man who feels a great sense of loss with China and that overlays the entire project. He is a very Confucian guy and he says that traditional Chinese culture has been totally wiped out by the Communist government and I think he started out with the goal of seeing that that was so.'' Still the survey was designed to be open-minded, Dr Chu says: ''We phrased the questions objectively, they were not leading questions, so you could find either way.'' Professor Chaffee doubts whether his colleague's preconceptions skewed the findings, though he admits, ''you cannot tell''. And there were other potential problems - ''Sometimes we thought the answers we were getting were politically correct and not really what people thought''. BUT, findings aside, just doing the survey broke new ground in China, he says. ''Up until then the documentation on the condition of Chinese culture had been pretty much literary, it has not been based on what people say they think and feel.'' To do the Chinese survey Dr Chu called in his former colleagues and sought the help of Dr Ju, who had been a professor of journalism in Shanghai. Survey design advice also came from Professor Wang Gungwu, the Vice-Chancellor of Hong Kong University, and Professor Ambrose King, the Pro-Vice Chancellor of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The China survey took place in November 1987 - interviews with 2,000 people from Shanghai, Qingpu and 25 villages formed the Shanghai area, each of whom was brought to a local school and filled in a questionnaire with staff and students of Dr Chua's former faculty. Those findings were compiled in a book, The Great Wall in Ruins, published in the US recently. But while they were being analysed, Professor Chaffee suggested the surprising data could be compared with other countries. So in 1990 his former colleagues and students in California, Texas, Florida, Connecticut, Ohio, and Wisconsin embarked on a telephone survey of 2,500 US citizens, asking the questions the Chinese interviewees had been asked. Academics at Taiwanese and Korean universities also began surveys there in conjunction with the US project. Dr Chu says a valid criticism was that his Chinese study concentrated on Shanghai. He and his teams have now done six more surveys in other parts of the country - ''the picture is basically the same''. He hopes that, as well as the academic merit and interest of the comparative findings, they will have another purpose: helping the communities involved understand each other better. Americans' knowledge of any Asian culture is limited and in US universities where classical texts are used in the study of China, there's virtually nothing about contemporary Chinese values, he says. ''Our book will give the general reader a better perspective. We have written it so the educated layman will be able to follow it.'' And he is looking forward to the publication of a Chinese language edition by a Taiwanese publisher: ''People in Taiwan don't understand the mainland Chinese today, they are not the same people any more.''