Six old towns in the Yangtze River delta are working to preserve the past. Jasper Becker charts their progress

Now if I tear anything down, people will kill me, because it's by not tearing things down that they can get rich people to come and spend money," Zhuang Chundi, Zhouzhuang's former mayor, tells me in a restaurant above a humpbacked bridge. Through the open window, you can see and hear—and smell—a scene to gladden the heart of any would-be Marco Polo.

Cheerful peasant women in blue smocks ferry tourists in wooden boats, serenading them with the town's official song, "New Zhouzhuang Is Good," composed by Zhuang himself. On either side of the narrow canal, visitors walk a gauntlet of shops from which the owners call out their wares—freshwater pearls, smoked turnip tips, cooked pigs' calves, spinach dumplings.

Zhouzhuang was the first of six towns in the Yangtze River delta to organize its own conservation. The self-appointed No. 1 Water Town of China, Zhouzhuang lies 60 miles from Shanghai and 30 miles from Suzhou in a fertile region packed with joint-venture export factories. (Suzhou, a sprawling manufacturing center, managed to get itself on UNESCO's World Heritage list thanks to its ancient gardens and canals.) As early as 1985, tourists began coming to the market towns along the Yangtze, although these were not officially designated as historic towns until the early nineties.

Preservation in China is a difficult business. The threat to what is left of old China comes not only from the environmental effects of industrialization—dams, pollution, superhighways—but also from postindustrial economic prosperity. Rapid urbanization is sweeping away what little of the past survived Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution and the decades of war and invasion before the Communist Party's 1949 victory. Centuries' worth of craftsmanship—carved lattice windows, doors, lintels—has been hastily jettisoned by people hungry for TV's and air conditioners and eager for the status afforded by villas with Spanish-style balustrades, Doric columns, and Gothic coats of arms. Antiques dealers are only too happy to scoop up the architectural salvage, repair it, and sell it around the world. Less and less of it remains in China.

One man, Professor Ruan Yisan of Tongji University's urban planning department in Shanghai, has recorded the losses. For years he has led students across rural China, sketching the country's fast-disappearing architectural treasures. Fifty years ago, he says, China had 300 walled cities. Now only four are left. Of the country's 2,000 historic cities, only a hundred remain, and of these Ruan estimates that a mere 20 have been preserved in anything resembling their original state. The most famous are two World Heritage Sites in Anhui province: Xidi and Hongcun, between the Yangtze and Huangshan Mountain, itself a major tourist attraction. Xidi, in Yixian County, survived because it was once reachable only by boat. Even Hollywood has been attracted by these once poverty-stricken Ming dynasty villages. The makers of the Oscar-winning film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon used Anhui for various locations.

"The speed of urbanization took everyone by surprise," says Ruan, who founded the National Research Center for Historic Cities. "We managed to save a few, but the destruction was so fast." Ruan won acclaim—and some considerable enmity—by persuading Shanghai not to tear up the Bund riverfront or the famous Nanjing Road shopping street, against the advice of Hong Kong developers. Changing the deep-rooted conviction that the old buildings are shameful relics of Confucian society was not easy, though. "At the beginning, people would not accept my views, but now they are ready to follow my preservation schemes and retain the original buildings," Ruan says.

In many cases, only the profits to be made from tourism have kept towns from being altogether despoiled. Some local governments have grasped the fact that there is more money to be made by preserving old buildings than by knocking them down. An increasing number of places are clamoring to be listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites; out of 754 sites on the current list, 29 are in China. But UNESCO officials now find themselves in the awkward position of discouraging more applications; being on the list often leads to a deterioration in the sites, real estate speculation, and the exodus or marginalization of the poor. UNESCO requires authorities to preserve the social and cultural identity of sites while involving local inhabitants in the development and management of the areas around them. However, once officials make up their minds to attract tourists, they start turning out the original residents and rebuilding houses, temples, and city walls, provoking what UNESCO describes as "dissatisfaction and even social turbulence."

When Pingyao, a walled city in Shanxi province, was renovated for tourism, the local government evicted half the residents, giving rise to heated disputes over compensation. In Henan province, the decision by tourist authorities to clear away restaurants, shops, and factories that obstructed access to the Longmen Buddhist Grottoes and the Shaolin monastery did not meet with widespread joy either. A retired official in Luoyang in charge of the Buddhist caves told me that an enraged peasant, after being forced to move his business, tracked him to his house and, when he opened the door, tried to stab him to death.

Given these difficulties, how have the six Yangtze towns managed to preserve their traditional architecture and way of life?In some cases, with some of the very same tactics UNESCO deplores. After traveling in France and Germany to see how things were done there, Mayor Zhuang invited Ruan to draw up a preservation plan for Zhouzhuang, but he admits that to implement it, he bent the rules a little. He moved out half the population and relocated schools and other noncommercial activities to create more room for shops and restaurants. Much of the restoration work on the old buildings is not faithful to the area's construction methods and designs. Concrete was often used where stone should have been. Still, Zhuang's old town—just one-fifth of a square mile—attracts almost 2.5 million tourists a year. (Zhuang built a new town with hotels and pedestrian shopping zones to accommodate them.) Visitors now have to buy an entrance ticket to get into the old sector, which is given over to shops and restaurants—500 of them in all.

Zhuang maintains that since the government won't pay for restoration, residents must be allowed to find ways to fund the repair of old houses themselves. "You can't introduce foreign concepts of conservation into China—we have to do things our own way," he says. "UNESCO is just too idealistic—their methods don't correspond to the realities of China. How can you put a place like this under glass?"

But Ling Gangqian, deputy director of the Applying World Heritage Site office in Tongli, disagrees. Tongli, twice as large as Zhouzhuang with a population of 10,000, has successfully retained its original character.

"We followed Professor Ruan's plan very strictly," Ling says. "We want to keep it as a living city, not a museum. Here you can see ordinary people living their lives, fishing, washing clothes in the canal."

There is, it is true, a much quieter, more natural feel to the town. Nobody yells at you as you go past. Along many canal walks, commercial ventures are expressly forbidden. In those that do exist, such as the tea shops where you can sit at wicker tables by the water, the mood is more contemplative. Being in Tongli gives you the uncanny feeling of walking into a Chinese scroll.

Tongli has so perfectly preserved its ancient feel—it dates back 1,000 years—that more than 40 movies and made-for-TV historical dramas have been filmed here. Yet the most attractive and picturesque buildings you see turn out, on closer inspection, to be entirely new. Tongli went so far as to build a "Yuan dynasty" Buddhist temple from scratch. It sits on Luoxing Island in a lake, and to reach it you take an electric bus, then a ferry. It looks so pretty with its ocher walls and green-tiled roofs that you somehow don't mind that it's fake, even if no temple has existed here for 300 years and it's still not a place of worship.

Four other towns in the area—Wuzhen, Nanxun, Xitang, and Luzhi—have modeled themselves on Zhouzhuang and Tongli. Luzhi, the smallest, has 40 bridges and 69 streets. Wu Qinrong of the Suzhou Luzhi Travel Co. says Luzhi has invested about $80 million in preservation efforts since 1999. He claims that they are learning from the mistakes other towns have made. As paving stones and bridges are carefully repaired, phone and electrical cables are buried underground. All wastewater is now treated at a newly built plant, and the water in Luzhi's canals—which was black and smelly a decade ago—is becoming clear again. The other Yangtze towns are also treating the water, but as they restore their canals, the little wooden boats and barges that made them so picturesque are disappearing. Ruan and his colleagues are trying to find a way to retain them.

Altogether, these six Yangtze towns have invested a reported $362 million in sanitation, infrastructure, and pollution treatment. Their efforts seem to be paying off. Some 7.9 million tourists visited last year, generating $181 million in revenue. The towns are planning to apply jointly to UNESCO for World Heritage Site status, and Zhuang says he is being approached by other villages for help in duplicating his successes. "I was just on the phone to people in Sichuan province—I can't tell you more now," he says archly. His method could, he hopes, turn out to be a blueprint for preserving what is left of China's past.

Imperial Tours offers luxury private and group day trips into the region led by multilingual guides (888/888-1970;; from $920 per person a night, double). Asia Pacific Travel arranges customized itineraries with overnight stays in several water towns and visits to other historic villages (800/262-6420; from $300 per person a night, double).

JASPER BECKER is the author, most recently, of The Chinese and Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine.

Watershed Down

The 15-year, multibillion-dollar Three Gorges Dam project—a government-led effort to control the flood-prone Yangtze and, eventually, generate one-ninth of China's power—constitutes one of the greatest threats to the country's ancient riverside towns. Within five years, a 350-mile-long lake will submerge an area once populated with 440 towns and villages.

Last fall, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky traveled to China to document riverbank life as it went through this epic change. His monumental "Three Gorges Dam Project" series, on view at New York's Charles Cowles Gallery (537 W. 24th St.; 212/741-8999; January 3-31), depicts half-demolished towns—covered in gray dust and rubble—some of which are now underwater.

Offering a more fantastical view of China—as a modern-day Atlantis—Brooklyn-based Chinese painter Yun-Fei Ji's mulberry-paper watercolors are on display at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis (3750 Washington Blvd.; 314/535-4660; January 23-March 27). In an uprooted village, figures from Chinese folktales and Buddhist legends swirl past the gnarled faces of Communist Party bureaucrats—unlikely partners brought together by rising waters.
—Carly Berwick