My great-grandfather, Ying Hsing Wen, was the first Chinese cadet at West Point Military Academy and graduated with the Class of 1909.
In honor of him, my relatives have set up awards for students in the Foreign Languages Department at West Point. Every year, the elder relatives present the awards at graduation. The first is an award given to a cadet selected by the faculty for demonstrating excellence in the field of East Asian Studies. The second is a China traveling fellowship awarded to a graduating cadet based on a research paper competition judged by the faculty covering some aspect of China or Chinese foreign relations.
I know my dad’s side of the family, the Wen’s, has a long record of serving in the military. We actually have a written family history passed down through the generations that details family members from the last couple thousands of years. From these findings, it is no surprise that great-grandfather went into a military career.
My great-grandfather passed away before I was born so I only know about his from family stories, newspaper clippings, and historical books.
An article in the New York Times published June 1, 1905, under the headline, “CHINESE AT WEST POINT,” states that a Special Act of Congress took place to admit him. My dad found written recordings of the debate within Congress. Some members opposed the “Chinese foreigner’s” entrance into the military academy. Others supported the move as a show of diplomacy and camaraderie with China. Congress ultimately voted to allow great-grandfather into West Point.
Great-grandfather did well at West Point academically and socially. His nickname during his time there was “George Washington Wen.” As noted in the New York Times (December 24, 1911), “Wen…was one of the most popular cadets that ever came to West Point from a foreign country. He was unusually bright…” The article continues, “[Wen] was the liveliest, best natured little Chinaman that ever crossed the Pacific according to the army officers who were the cadets with him at West Point.” Today, calling someone a “little Chinaman” would make one cringe, but back then it was stated with the utmost respect.
After graduating from West Point, great-grandfather worked as a military aide to Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Nationalist movement that overthrew the Manchu dynasty. He rose to the rank of lieutenant general, serving as deputy commanding general of Chiang Kai-Shek’s National Gendarmerie and became a senator after World War II. When the Chinese Communists took over, great-grandfather fled to Taiwan, and eventually to America.
I wouldn’t be living here today if my great-grandfather hadn’t helped my dad come to the U.S. to study. Like my other siblings, I was born in the States. Tomorrow after the awards ceremony, my relatives and I will visit great-grandfather in the West Point cemetery. There in front of his gravestone, I will give thanks.
Photo: West Point Military Academy archives