China and Columbia University have agreed to establish a permanent system for exchange of research and reference materials in the arts, Columbia announced yesterday.

The exchange program is another example of China's moves toward greater communication with other nations that followed the downfall of the "gang of four" and the ensuing liberalization in science, education and the arts.

Chou Wen-chung, professor of music at Columbia, will be the first director of the exchange center at Columbia. The Central Institute of Music in Peking will handle the Chinese end.

Chou said he first broached the idea of exchanges in th arts on his first trip to China in 1972 and was turned down. When he returned to China a year ago, however, he made the same proposal and it was enthusiastically received, he said.

Initially, exchanges will be in music, performing arts and visual arts, and eventually Chou hopes that performers and students will travel back and forth under the program.

China decided last summer to send hundreds of students abroad for the first time in many years and Chou said that one Chinese musician has already applied to an American music school.

Initial funds for the exchange program have been provided by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and other foundations, Columbia announced. Presumably, the Chinese government will pay the costs of its side.

Chou said the exchange center "will lead to a broadly based and ongoing development rather than isolated and momentary events.

The new mood in arts development in the People's Republic of China represents a revival of the more liberal and less monolithic spirit in the arts of the 1950s - the Hundred Flowers Movement."

Chairman Mao Tse-tung gave that period of liberalization its name by ceclaring "let a hundred flowers bloom," but policy changed swiftly.

A panel of specialists will be appointed for each group of materials to be sent to China. Those received from China will be duplicated at Columbia and distributed to other interested American institutions. The center will negotiate with the Chinese for materials particularly desired by scholars in the United States.