CANTON, China (AP) _ Chen Liu was just a baby when police found her abandoned at a bus station and took her to an orphanage.

By age 2 1/2, she was undernourished, her legs bowed by rickets _ one reason her new parents were anxious to take the shy-eyed girl home to Phoenix, where sunshine and a healthy diet should toughen her bones.

``She would have died in that orphanage,'' said Marianne Adams, who renamed her new daughter Leah. ``I saved a child.''

Thousands of American couples, many frustrated by the difficulty of adopting in the United States, are turning to China for children, building personal bridges between the two nations as their governments quarrel over trade and human rights.

Where adoptions are concerned, Chinese and American trends mesh. China wants parents age 35 and over who can offer orphans stable homes, and career-minded American couples start families later in life.

Such adoptions have risen rapidly, from just 12 children in 1988 to 226 in 1992 and 2,566 last year.

For some Americans, reports over the past year that some Chinese orphanages neglect their charges and even deliberately let children die increased their determination to adopt.

``The impact of that is you ask if you can bring home two,'' said Jamie Williams of Nashville, Tenn. She and her husband asked for twins but were nevertheless delighted to get a 10-month-old girl.

While they furiously denied the reports of neglect, Chinese officials no longer let most parents meet their new children at orphanages, apparently to avoid further scrutiny, adoption agencies say.

``They're pretty sensitive about it,'' said Mrs. Adams, who works for a St. Louis-based agency that specializes in Chinese adoptions.

Parents say they chose China because its adoption rules are easier and young, healthy American orphans are hard to find. China allows single parents and older couples to adopt and there is little risk a child's biological parents will show up to claim them, as sometimes happens in the United States.

Many children in Chinese orphanages were apparently abandoned. Many of the healthy ones are girls, because traditionally, Chinese value girls less than boys, who carry on the family name and are considered more capable of providing for their parents in old age.

Mrs. Adams said Chinese people she and her husband met wanted to see under Chen Liu's diapers and gave thumbs-up signs after establishing her gender. ``They don't like us taking their boys,'' she said.

Americans who adopt from China undergo exhaustive application procedures, opening their lives to scrutiny by Chinese officials before making the long trip to China to collect their child.

Fees vary. Mrs. Adams said they paid $13,500, including legal and agency fees, travel costs and a $3,000 donation to the orphanage. ``I have people that spent three times more than that on fertility drugs,'' she said.

After a grueling trip, the Adamses and nine other couples got to Fuzhou in southeastern China at 8 p.m., only to be told their children were coming that night.

``We were exhausted,'' Mrs. Adams recalled a week later during an interview at a hotel in Canton during a stopover on the trip home with Chen Liu.

The parents were called separately from their hotel rooms to meet their children downstairs.

``We're wondering what is she like? Does she smile? Does she walk? Does she talk?'' said Kristine Stocking, also from Phoenix. She said her bob-haired, 2-year-old daughter, Anna Chun-yan, was even more beautiful than she'd hoped.

``I looked at her and I couldn't believe her,'' she said, her blue-gray eyes twinkling.

The parents do worry that their children, often abandoned with just a note giving their date of birth, lack access to their own histories.

``There's a segment of their lives that's always going to be missing: Who am I? Where do I come from?'' said Peter Adams, who expects to revisit China to show Chen Liu her roots.

Without solid histories, the parents look at their children's behavior for pointers to their past. That they're toilet-trained, for example, suggests ``they've been taken care of,'' Mrs. Adams said.

But Chen Liu's rickets also suggest she lacked proper food and sunshine.

Chinese call children ``Baobao,'' or treasures, and people in Canton seemed happy to see that some had found new homes. People shouted greetings as the Adamses and Stockings strolled with their children.

Mrs. Stocking said her daughter was hesitant at first, possibly because she didn't know what to make of a tall, blonde woman with blue eyes. But by the time they got to Canton, the youngsters were hugging and playing with their new parents.

Larry Williams proudly aimed his video camera at his daughter, Tessa, during lunch. ``It's her first ice cream,'' he said with a grin.

Obviously at ease, Tessa said ``Da'' as she clapped hands for her new daddy. Then she smiled, revealing four brand-new teeth.