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First Chinese graduate of West Point: how my grandfather modernised China's army and became a subtle liaison with the US

First Chinese graduate of West Point: how my grandfather modernised China's army and became a subtle liaison with the US

Originally published at the South China Morning Post on October 4, 2015.

Growing up, Harriet Tung didn't know much about her grandfather's past.

She only knew he was a general in China in the 1900s and that he had gone to the US Military Academy at West Point.

Yet she can recall the way he would prepare meticulously for functions at the prestigious academy, which piqued her curiosity about the military career about which he had always kept silent.

"He would get very excited, and he would put on his hat and his suit," said Tung, now in her sixties and living in Hong Kong. "We [would say] 'oh, grandfather must have a West Point function because he's all dressed up'."

Ying Hsing Wen (溫應星), Tung's grandfather, was no ordinary soldier.

In 1909, he was the first cadet from China to graduate from West Point. Upon returning to China, Wen was immediately tasked with modernising the Chinese army. He then proceeded to join the movement to overthrow the Qing dynasty.

Against the backdrop of President Xi Jinping's first state visit to the US last week, the story of Tung's grandfather is especially poignant, given his role in fostering relations between the two countries.

The patriotic, well-educated son of a district governor, Wen chose to enter the military to contribute to China's modernisation.

Wen was among four foreign cadets - including Ting Chia Chen from China - to be admitted to West Point on June 15, 1905 under a special act of the US Congress. He attended the Virginia Military Institute while waiting for approval for his enrolment to West Point.

Since Wen and Chen, only six cadets from mainland China and six from Taiwan have graduated from the academy, according to a West Point report released last year.

Wen graduated alongside the likes of US lieutenant general George S. Patton, who would later go on to lead the US 7th Army in the invasion of Sicily before leading the 3rd Army in France during the second world war.

Of the graduation ceremony, The New York Times wrote that "the cheers of the cadet corps shook the building, and Wen was so pleased that he winked at his classmates and left the rostrum all smiles".

Wen came first in his class for conduct. He was regarded as "unusually bright, and despite the handicap of language he graduated … in a class of 104 members," the newspaper reported in 1911.

His enrolment came at a tumultuous time in Sino-US relations. China sent its first officially sponsored group of students to the US in 1872 to study science and engineering in a bid to reform the nation.

Yet in 1905, China launched a nationwide economic boycott against the US as a result of the country's anti-Chinese policies like the 1882 exclusion act.

The law halted the immigration of Chinese workers. It was repealed only in 1943 during the second world war when China became America's ally in the war against the Japanese.

When Theodore Roosevelt became US president in 1901, he made it a priority to pursue active policies with Asian countries, said Xu Guoqi, professor of history at the University of Hong Kong.

Roosevelt's administration supported the establishment of the Boxer Scholarship in 1908, which enabled Chinese students to study in the US.

"To cultivate good relations with Chinese youth was very important," Xu said. "Mr Wen, like many Chinese boy students prior to him and many Boxer scholar students after him, was a very important part of the shared history between Chinese and Americans. They functioned as messengers between both nations and cultures."

When Wen returned to China, he was immediately tasked with modernising the Chinese army. Among other roles, he became an instructor at a military academy in Canton and rose through the ranks rapidly, before joining with forces that overthrew the Manchus, bringing an end to the almost 300-year-long reign of China's last dynastic empire.

One of his most important responsibilities was serving as military council secretary to Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary who later established the Kuomintang party and the Republic of China.

Wen was able to bring the unique expertise and cultural understanding he gained through studying at West Point to various top positions. As reorganiser and commander of the prestigious Salt Revenue Guard in 1930, he ran the force like a modern army, distinguishing it from other Chinese units by making sure that officers were well clothed and equipped.

"[He] learned the responsibilities of being a good officer for the men he commanded," said Tung, recalling Wen as a tight-lipped but responsible grandfather. "He performed his duty and he served his country. He loved his country and he must have had a lot of mixed feelings when he left China."

Other interesting items in Wen's diary in those years include his serving as China's representative at the coronation of Britain's king George VI in 1937, and later as senior member of the Chinese delegation to the United Nations Military Staff Committee. After moving to the US following the communist takeover, he ran his own business before passing away in 1968 at the age of 81. He chose to be laid to rest at West Point Cemetery.

In 2010, Tung established the LTG Ying Hsing Wen Memorial Award for West Point cadets studying Chinese to travel to China. By promoting cultural exchanges between China and the US, Tung hopes to encourage understanding between Chinese and American people.

Tung is the wife of Tung Chee-chen, brother of Hong Kong's first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, and chairman of the family's shipping business Orient Overseas International.

Tung Chee-hwa, also chairman of the China-United States Exchange Foundation, gave a speech on boosting Sino-US relations at West Point in 2012.

On the Wen award, Harriet Tung said: "I hope the Wen travel award will foster that relationship by giving young West Point cadets an opportunity to visit China ... and gain a better understanding of China's culture, history and accomplishments."

Looking back at her grandfather's role in history, Harriet Tung paid him a heartfelt tribute: "Grandfather followed the motto of duty, honour and country. I am sure if grandfather was alive today, he would be delighted to see a strong, stable and modern China as a driving force of today's global economy."

The last time China sent a cadet to the United States Military Academy at West Point was in 1937.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, China was in the midst of transforming itself into a modern nation. The country was weak in terms of its economy, diplomacy and military - and the desire to bolster its armed forces motivated leaders to send young men to train abroad in the hope that they would return with the skills to strengthen the nation.

"The nation was sick and desperate to be a rich country with a strong military," said Xu Guoqi, professor of history at the University of Hong Kong. "To learn from the developed countries was a major theme in modern China from the late 19th century."

Lin Chong-pin, former Taiwanese deputy minister of defence, said that Chiang Kai-shek sent cadets to Germany, Italy and Britain in addition to the US. His father was sent to study at the Royal Air Force staff college in the UK, he added.

From 1909 to 1937, eight foreign cadets from mainland China graduated from West Point, according to a report released by the academy last year.

According to Shi Yinhong , professor and international relations expert at Renmin University, there are currently few military exchanges between the US and China because strategic rivalry between the countries has intensified in recent years.

"China has remarkable reluctance to train officials abroad," said Shi, explaining that those who do go and learn abroad have usually already trained extensively in China. "China believes that its own military training at home ... is most reliable."

Although the two nations collaborate on joint drills, each also conducts military exercises with other countries independently of the other.

"I think in the future they will have more limited exchanges," Shi said. But diplomacy is the key to fostering better Sino-American relations, not military exchanges, he argued. "Soldiers do not decide policy."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: A military first for a Chinese patriot

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