May 23, 2024
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Eye on the East: A conversation with Professor Emeritus John William Chaffee

Distinguished Service Professor spent his career focused on Asia and China’s Song Dynasty

Professor Emeritus John William Chaffee Professor Emeritus John William Chaffee
Professor Emeritus John William Chaffee Image Credit: Jonathan Cohen.

You can say that John William Chaffee’s interest in Asia had an early start.

Chaffee, who went on to become a Binghamton University Distinguished Service professor of history, was actually born there; his parents were Presbyterian missionaries in central China in the 1940s, prior to the success of the Chinese Revolution that year. They left in the beginning of 1949, when Chaffee was less than a year old, and spent the next 20 years in Thailand.

In addition to Thailand, Chaffee spent his fifth and 10th grades in the United States, with the remainder of his high school years at a boarding school in India. By the time he headed to Swarthmore College, he had already spent much of his life in Asia — although not China, which later became the focus of his career. The international left was intrigued by Communist China in the 1970s and had yet to learn about the atrocities that occurred there during the Cultural Revolution, he remembered.

During his undergraduate years, Chaffee took an independent study with a Chinese historian, who suggested looking into the Song dynasty. It sparked a lifelong interest.

“The Song period was a time that China had remarkable developments that prefigured modern European developments in terms of the social order, the creation of a print-based society and a large urban population,” he said. “They also had an elaborate iron and steel industry, and they seem to our eyes to be very modern.”

His books include The Thorny Gates of Learning: A Social History of Examinations; Branches of Heaven: A History of the Sung Imperial Clan; and The Muslim Merchants of Premodern China: The Social History of a Trade Diaspora, 700-1400.

“China had created an examination for the selection of government officials that was utterly unlike anything else in the rest of the world,” he said of his first book. “In a sense, one of China’s contributions to world culture has to do with the idea of examinations as a way of ordering society, something that is now universal.”

That examination system was fully articulated during the Song period. This initial project led to the next: the role of the imperial clan within the government system. While members of the imperial family were initially kept away from political power, that changed through time; in fact, they ended up getting breaks in the examination system because of their connections.

In the year 1127, the Song lost northern China to the Jurchens and were driven to the south, where they became involved in maritime trade. That led to Chaffee’s most recent book: a look at the foreigners who were settling in Chinese port cities during that period, including Muslim traders.

Chaffee retired from Binghamton in the fall of 2023, after 43 years in the classroom. Retirement has been busy for the professor emeritus; Chaffee is active with his church and also serves on the Phelps Mansion Museum board and Lyceum’s program committee. A singer, he is also active with various choral groups, including the Southern Tier Singers Collective.

Asia in the University

The History Department has changed dramatically over the past four decades, he reflected. Back in the 1980s, most of its faculty members specialized in U.S. and European history, which was typical at the time; Chaffee was the only one studying Asia. Today’s department has a commitment to global study and includes specialists in China, South Asia and the Middle East, as well as other regions.

“Certainly, Asia has become more prominent globally and economically through the decades in so many ways, so it makes sense that academics would change to reflect that,” he said. “There was also a growing Asian presence among students on campus during that period.”

During his time at Binghamton, Chaffee was involved in developing the Asian and Asian American Studies department, beginning with a small East Asian studies program. Student interest drove the addition of Asian American studies in the 1990s, leading to the creation of the current department.

A major grant award led to the hiring of five faculty members, and the program became its own department in the early 2000s. The language programs in Japanese, Chinese and Korean, which had been housed in what was then the German, Russian and East Asian Languages department, moved under the new aegis. Chaffee spent a year as the new department’s first chair.

He was also involved with the Translation Research and Instruction Program (TRIP). Many TRIP students come from China, due to Binghamton’s relationship with a university in Beijing, Chaffee said; he worked with some of these students on translation projects that touch upon Chinese history and culture.

He appreciates the University’s commitment to global perspectives and a structure that encourages interdisciplinary connections.

“I’ve certainly been blessed by the outstanding quality of the students that we have,” Chaffee said.

Posted in: In the World, Harpur