Great traditions die hard. This is especially true in the arts. Something that has taken centuries or even millenniums to evolve, and that encapsulates the values and ideals of an entire culture, cannot be cast aside as easily as a suit of outmoded clothes.
Even so, there are always those who try. From the time of its founding in 1949, the People's Republic of China has insisted that art serve socialist ideals. In response, a poster-style propaganda art - came into prominence, and traditional Chinese art went into a dramatic decline.
But worse was still to come. From 1958 until the fall from power of the ''gang of four'' in 1976 - traditional art forms came under increasing attack, and many of the artists still working in that style stopped painting entirely.
The situation began to improve in 1976, however, when a new slogan for Chinese painting - ''Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom'' - went into effect. A general cultural thaw gradually brought about a resurgence of traditional art forms.
''Contemporary Chinese Painting: An Exhibition From the People's Republic of China,'' currently on view at the Asia Society here, documents this resurgence. It was organized by Lucy Lim, executive director of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, where it was first shown, and consists of 53 brush paintings and sketches done in the traditional style by 36 artists.
It was obvious at first glance that old skills with brush and ink had not been forgotten, and indeed, that some of the traditional techniques had been pushed into new and very fertile directions.
The traditional methods were ''updated'' to take into account late-20 th-century ideas and interests. Interestingly, however, these new developments appeared to have resulted more from evolutionary than from revolutionary attitudes.
Thus, the landscapes in this show appeared broader, more Expressionistic; the florals bolder; the figure compositions a bit more literal; the individual figure studies more ''real'' and informal; and the work as a whole more passionate and colorful.
Much of the exhibition's impact results from the care with which it was assembled. Obviously, only the best pieces were chosen. There is not one false note, a fact that triggers curiosity about what else is being produced in China today.
I was especially moved by the character and authenticity of the paintings. These qualities were so extraordinary that I wondered how general they were in the works of the other older traditionalists. If these qualities are widespread, then it appears likely that a true renaissance is occurring in Chinese painting. If they are not, one is still left wondering why so much excellent art made its appearance at this particular time.
The essays in the exhibition catalog provide no ready answers, although they do give the impression that this resurgence of traditional art is general. I was surprised to discover, for instance, that all Chinese art students must now have a thorough grounding in such Western disciplines as drawing from plaster casts and from life; that Liu Haisu, trained as an Impressionist in Paris, and still painting vibrant oils today, also produces boldly rendered ''traditional'' landscapes; that Li Keran, creator of such a wonderfully ''typical'' Chinese picture as ''Laughing Monk,'' was influenced by the woodcuts of Kathe Kollwitz; and that Andrew Wyeth is a current idol because he shows them how to approach nature directly.
This is, in all, a beautiful and important exhibition. There is a great deal more going on here than meets the eye, and I wish we had more opportunities to study this aspect of contemporary Chinese painting.
After its closing at the Asia Society here on Aug. 26, the exhibition travels to the Herbert Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. (Sept. 12 -Oct. 18); the Denver Art Museum (Dec. 22-Feb. 24, 1985); the Indianapolis Museum of Art (March 19-May 19, 1985); Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City (July 12-Sept. 1, 1985); and the University Art Museum, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis (Sept. 23-Dec. 1, 1985).