Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Political Science


Susan Buck-Morss

Subject Categories

Architectural History and Criticism | Chinese Studies | Political Theory | Urban Studies and Planning


Beijing, Maoism, Walter Benjamin, Cai Xiang, Politics of Space, Department Store


This thesis examines the Beijing Department Store as a contradictory structure embedded in the world’s largest Communist revolution. By looking at the urban planning decisions behind constructing a colonial form in the center of the socialist capital, I attempt to unravel the complex intersection of economic development and egalitarian mass action in the early Maoist period. Constructed in 1955 during the first Five Year Plan, the Department Store sheds light on the specific parameters of post-revolution modernization campaigns. Furthermore, by looking at the conceptualizations of the building by the Party, architects, and the workers inside the store, I examine how the Department Store responded to global circumstances and a historical, transnational conjuncture facing other Communist projects like the Soviet Union. By turning to the philosophy of Walter Benjamin and Cai Xiang, I attempt to elaborate the Department Store as a “dialectical image,” a real physical space that crystalizes competing temporalities and social relations at a momentary standstill. Applying this analytic to the Department Store reveals the way it balanced notions of egalitarianism and modernism, as well as competing potentials for the commodity form under a socialist economy. By looking at how this single structure manifested these tensions, I argue that architecture and urban design represent more than a superstructural manifestation of an economic base, but rather are a centrally constitutive part of society, both economically and politically, and thus show the larger contradictions at play in the Maoist project. Finally, in revealing these tensions, I show how the Beijing Department Store contained real potentials for rethinking repressive social relationships and how the covering up of these potentials forms the foundation of the contemporary Chinese state, whose urban space is defined more and more by malls and department stores.