As the country plunges headlong into the 21st century, a distinguished historian makes the case for preserving--and restructuring--its rich cultural heritage.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IT WAS JUST OVER A CENTURY AGO THAT CHINA STARTED destroying itself in the name of modernity. Railroad tracks and asphalt roads sliced into canals and through gated city walls--the routes those walls once traced becoming the perfect cleared zones for new systems of ring roads. Rickshaw pullers and night-soil carriers struggled for room on city streets with trams, automobiles, and buses. The past was expensive to maintain and, because China seemed limitless--sheltering a universe of temples, sacred mountains, and hallowed lakes--it was also expendable.

Through the warlord era of the early 20th century, the nationalist and communist wars of the 1920s and early '30s, the Japanese invasion, and the Maoist revolution, the steady destruction went on. With terrible ferocity, the trends coalesced into the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s, with its concentrated attack on old ways, old people, old things.

Today, in addition to the many problems that China's leaders face--from controlling inflation to reforming the banking system, from dealing with rural poverty to clearing contaminated rivers and polluted air--there's one more that needs to be addressed: the challenge of preserving the most significant elements of China's remarkable cultural and aesthetic past.

After Mao died and Deng Xiaoping moved to embrace economic growth, most voices speaking for preservation remained muted, as the headlong process of urban reclamation, with its emphasis on high-rise architecture and infrastructure building, absorbed the nation's energies. But now that China has accumulated huge foreign reserves, joined the World Trade Organization, and prepares to host the Olympic Games, the impulse to stem the eradication of the past has found growing support.

President Hu Jintao has emphasized the restoration of a more livable environment as high among his priorities, edging aside the more growth-driven and centralized approaches of his predecessor (and still rival) Jiang Zemin. Some of that impulse is economic and comes from the imperatives of global tourism: Foreign visitors are tenacious in their desire to see the past. The Chinese have responded to such demands with flair and flamboyance. Technologies developed for European ski resorts already whisk visitors across ravines and gullies to previously inaccessible areas of the Great Wall.

Last May, with a private group, I had my first "rent a wall" experience. A mile stretch of the Great Wall, far from the area most visited by tourists, had been restored and its watchtowers recrenelated. It was ours for the morning--and for a fee. Off to the west, under a bright sun, booming drums played by an orchestra of young men in red and yellow uniforms reminiscent of the imperial Manchu banner armies gave a rhythmic pulse to the wall's own scenic course. On a broad terrace, recently built but in architectural harmony with the stone and gray-brick facing of the wall, an elegant lunch was laid out. The experience was not the past--it was firmly in the present. But it created its own mood, was of its own time and place, and offers a glimmer of how skillful entrepreneurs are beginning to exploit China's heritage.

A different kind of restructuring can be seen in today's Shanghai. The city is so huge it has eaten up much of the surrounding countryside. Looking down from the top of a tall hotel, one can map out how many thousands of homes had to be destroyed to create the high-rise vistas that stretch endlessly and without plan into the distance and into the future. One of the few earlier tourist sites remaining intact is the Bund, the imposing collection of stone buildings along the Huangpu River, where the British-dominated international settlement used to be. Those buildings, with their implied legacy of imperialist rule, are the urban equivalent of the drummers on the Great Wall. Entrepreneurs have restored dance halls like the Paramount, where foreigners used to congregate in the 1920s. There, for a price, one can again drink champagne, eat a lavish dinner, and watch Chinese cabaret dancers pivot in their feather boas and stiletto heels as they descend the ornamental staircase. Even the once-condemned imperialist past can be repackaged as the harmless accompaniments to a night on the town.

FROM THE standpoint of job creation, the resurgence of the traditions of craftsmanship, which have survived long years of communist rejection of the past, may also prove significant. In the Forbidden City right now, craftspeople and carpenters from villages in central and northern China, under the auspices of the World Heritage Foundation, are rebuilding a section of the palace complex that burned to the ground in the 1920s. Every detail of each beam and bracket is flawlessly executed, every pillar handcrafted from hardy Harbin pine, coated with hemp and clay, and bonded with pigs' blood before being hand-smoothed and lacquered to a translucent beauty. Then the painters take over, decorating every inch of ceiling beams and balcony carving with the traditional blue and green and red designs that grace the other surviving buildings. And in many other towns and rural areas, temples and shrines are being restored with the same impeccable detailing.

Scholarly activism also has its place. In many cities the imperatives of hard-driving economic growth are still paramount. Yet in some parts of China, scholars and those with a larger view of the past have been fighting courageous and sometimes successful battles to save whole communities. In the Yangtze delta province of Jiangsu, for instance, most of the major cities have been irrevocably developed, and there is no chance of recapturing their lost charms. But a recent study of six smaller towns in the region around Suzhou by Ruan Yisan, a professor in the department of city and town planning at Shanghai's Tongji University, gives us a different picture. Ruan shows how sometimes the local Communist cadres can be persuaded that the preservation and renewal of past beauties--hand-cut stone walkways for the streets, exquisite lattice, ornamental shutters, carved doorways, and expanses of canal with stone stairs leading down to the water--can have economic rewards: They can be saved and made the basis for an urban life of aesthetic richness adjusted to the needs of an educated and affluent middle-class lifestyle.

Sometimes Ruan lost his battles; he was even banned from studying some towns. But on occasion, he reports, it was possible to win over Communist cadres and enlist their help, not only to restore a town's past glories but also to remove the overlays of concrete and asphalt and demolish some of the ugliest of the carelessly erected new buildings. In Wuzhen, Ruan and the locals established storehouses where they could keep handcrafted materials that they provided at modest cost to those undertaking restoration work. Now and then, local officials helped Ruan and his colleagues get funding from agencies in Beijing for their work. Such examples suggest the possibilities of how the central government might link up with local communities, saving them from aesthetic destruction and creating beautiful environments where not only citizens can live with pleasure, but foreigners will also pay to visit.

It is not only tourist income, craftsmanship, and a bold urban aesthetic vision that are at issue as China begins to reaffirm the value of its past. There are elements in some sites--especially in places that once were not considered Chinese, such as Tibet, Kashgar, or Harbin--that speak to the nature of China's identity. The way the sites are defined is central to the concept of a "greater China" and can be a source of nationalist pride. That in turn can lead to government support for explorations in archeology and religious and political history, which can open up new possibilities of tourist access and reshape historical thinking. The terra-cotta warrior armies of Xian have been a prototype of the mass appeal of such artifacts. The Buddhist relics and paintings found in caves buried beneath the drifting sands of Dunhuang in western China may prove to have similar appeal. They also pose problems of restitution, as foreign museums and libraries are pressured to return manuscripts and wall paintings they took home a century ago when they first discovered this holy site on the Silk Road.

SINCE CHINA is a great repository of texts as well as artifacts, inevitably archaeology is an integral part of the story. Tomb sites in Hunan and Hubei provinces dating from the fourth to the second centuries B.C. have yielded hundreds of documents written on silk and on slivers of split bamboo that demonstrate the subtlety and diversity of China's discussion of political activism during those far-off days, as well as early Chinese conceptions of law and economics, geography, military science, and philosophy.

The new texts enrich our knowledge of the intellectual roots of Confucianism and Taoism and of the way that moral arguments were couched. At the same time the discovery of a Chu culture in south-central China illuminates the diverse nature of what used to be termed "Chinese culture." If China had several epicenters, not just one, it would complicate definitions of historical and national identity. Cultural leaders both now and 20 years hence will be pressed to see whether there is a way to coordinate those discoveries and to integrate them into a larger analytical narrative of the nature of Chinese civilization.

If viewed through this group of lenses, China's past can be seen as an integral part of its future. It lives on in the definition of the nation, the manifestations of craft and skill, the possibilities of imaginative urban planning, and the more immediate gain of financial profit. It is in the interest of China's leaders, as they strive to maintain their country's remarkable pattern of growth and to keep their society at peace, that they devote at least a part of their attention to the aesthetic richness of their inheritance.