SHANGHAI -- For the first time in China, judges at a national art exhibition have awarded a prize to a nude painting.

An abstract painting also was included among a total of 15 prize winners at the exhibition, which opened here last week.

Nude and abstract paintings have caused controversy in China for decades. It was only in recent years that Chinese artists could openly exhibit paintings of nudes. As recently as last year, officials sometimes barred nudes from exhibitions or removed them from the walls.

The nude painting that won the award, entitled "The Earth," depicts female and male figures lying parallel to each other on cloth pallets. The female is facing upward and the male facing downward. The painting conveys a tranquil, ethereal quality.

"Although 'The Earth' is not perfect in its proportion and composition, it gives us a sense of purity with a simple, implicit style," Ge Weimo, an exhibition judge and member of the secretariat of the Chinese Artists' Association, told the official China Daily newspaper.

The award given to the nude painting seems to reflect a more relaxed atmosphere following a Communist Party congress at the end of October. The congress resulted in the retirement of two leading party ideologues who favored strict controls over art and literature.

But it was not yet clear how far this relaxation will go.

Only a few weeks before the party congress, police prevented a Beijing painter from exhibiting his work in a city street.

A well-known young artist who paints nudes and sometimes works in a surrealistic style has been unable to get permission to travel overseas.

When self-taught artist Liu Jixian, 27, who goes by the name A Xian, mounted an exhibition of his works here last year, he included a number of nudes. The paintings showed voluptuous female nudes moving in a dreamlike manner through doors, archways and corridors at the old Imperial Palace.

A Xian was visited by two men, apparently from a police agency, who told him that "the masses have some complaints about these paintings."

The artist was advised to move the paintings to a small room adjoining the main exhibition, where he could show the nudes to those who asked to see them and "those who can understand them."

Everyone agrees, however, that China has come some distance from a much publicized incident in 1979, when the authorities decided to cover up two female nudes who appeared on a Beijing airport mural.

The 440 oil paintings shown last week at the Shanghai exhibition center drew large crowds, with young people in the majority. Only a few nudes and abstract paintings were included. Most of the works on display were painted in realistic, less controversial styles.

The China Daily found it remarkable, however, that the paintings carried no moral or political messages. The longtime Chinese leader, Mao Tse-tung, appears only in "Winter Morning Sunlight," where he observes two young soldiers against the background of a barren landscape.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, in the late 1960s, Chinese painters produced innumerable portraits of Mao and other leaders, most of them in a worshipful style.

Shanghai's Wen Hui daily newspaper focused on the variety of styles among the paintings but did not mention the nude painting that won an award.

A reporter for the paper wrote that the artists in the exhibit showed that it was possible to create new styles without mechanically imitating foreign painters. The writer said Chinese often ignored abstract paintings if they were "too abstract."