Dedication, hardship, and faith characterized the life of Gladys Aylward. To pay for the trip to China, she had worked nights and weekends as a housemaid in London, saving every half-penny. Once she realized that her voice was “shrill and immature,” she took pains to improve it by open-air preaching to passers-by in Hyde Park.
She had been warned by the travel agent that the Trans-Siberian Railway might not take her all the way to China because it passed through a war zone. Deep in Siberia, when told to leave the train, she refused, insisting that she had paid her way to China. Finally she had to obey, and walked all night through freezing weather to the next station. There she was almost detained by a Russian secret police agent for shipment to a Siberian work-camp, but a friendly girl arranged for her to take a ship to Japan, whence she made her way to Tianjin. This epic journey that previewed the rest of her missionary career.
More exhausting travel, the last stages on muleback, brought Aylward to Yangcheng, Shanxi, where she joined Mrs. Jeannie Lawson, a remarkable woman in her seventies who had pushed into the interior where other foreigners had not gone. Aylward had responded to a call for assistance from Lawson, who had served in China for 50 years.
With the help of their Christian cook Yang and the novice Aylward, she opened the Inn of Eight Happinesses as a means of reaching people with the Gospel.
Mrs. Lawson’s method was to provide clean lodgings, good food, and Bible stories to the travelers, who would then relay to others along the road what they had heard. The missionaries would not have to go out and preach; they provided a needed service and thus gained a hearing for their stories.
Later, as trust was built, the two women ventured into the surrounding villages to share the Gospel with women and children. When Lawson died, however, Aylward was left with no money to pay the expenses of running the inn.
The regional mandarin’s request for her to serve as Foot Inspector to enforce the new law against foot-binding brought income, status, and open doors for the Gospel, for she also received his permission to tell the women and girls about Jesus. Opposition met her at first, but the people feared the mandarin’s wrath if they disobeyed his order to allow their daughters’ feet to be unbound, especially as Alyward was accompanied by two soldiers.
In time, Aylward had little foot-binding inspecting to do, for most folk agreed that the custom had been a bad one, but people still wanted to hear stories from the Bible. She traveled into the farthest recesses of the region, sometimes crawling over rocks to reach cave-dwellers, who eventually gave her the name, “The Small Woman,” because of her diminutive stature. Others named her “Virtuous Woman,” in recognition of her love for them.
The mandarin came to love and respect Aylward so much that once he called upon her to quell a prison riot. Her commanding presence and quiet faith in God quieted the violent men. When she learned of the reasons for their discontent, she urged the warden to improve prison conditions. Inmates were given work and cleaner surroundings, and gladly listened to her as she returned repeatedly to tell them about God and his love.
The incident at the prison and her ensuing ministry there won for Aylward even greater affection from the residents of Yangcheng (Jincheng), who began to bring her their problems for advice and prayer. The hymns she had taught the women and children soon began to be heard sung throughout the city.
Becoming a Chinese citizen, the first foreign missionary to do so, Aylward was merely expressing her utter devotion to her Chinese friends and neighbors. Beginning with one small girl, Aylward adopted several destitute children, whom she began to educate. Soon the mandarin asked her to open a school, and enrolled his own children in it as an example to others.
During the tumultuous 1930s, she became intimately familiar with both the terrain and people of her district. Thus, she was able to hide herself and her adopted children from the Japanese invaders, whose brutal atrocities filled her with horror and anger. She gradually began to collect and relay information about enemy troop movements to government forces, even as she cared for more wounded and homeless refugees and orphans in the caves near Yangcheng.
When she printed a story reflecting her feelings, the Japanese sent out a warrant for her arrest. They had already renewed their advance into her area, killing women and children indiscriminately, so she knew she had to take the little ones in her care to safety. The epic journey to Xian leading 94 children tested all her mental, physical, and spiritual resources. Only faith in God kept her going.
Though the film “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness” portrays Aylward as spurring on her weary group with cheerful ditties, the truth is that they sang hymns to strengthen their faith. Other inaccuracies in the film include a supposed romantic relationship with Col Linnan; this and other liberties with the truth deeply troubled Aylward.
The nearly-miraculous arrival in Xian left Ayward, who had been wounded in a strafing attack and struck with the butt of a Japanese rifle, utterly spent and very ill. Poor health and headaches plagued her for the last thirty years of her life, but did not dampen her zeal to serve China and especially its children. She started a church, visited prisons, and continued to care for lepers and her orphans.
When she arrived in England in 1947, she discovered that her letters home had been circulated by her parents and prayer partners, and the article had made her famous. For ten years she traveled the United Kingdom and the continent, telling everyone about the war’s ravages and China’s needs for Christ, being received by many heads of state.
She founded the Gladys Aylward Charitable Trust for orphans, as well as a hostel for Chinese immigrants in Liverpool.
In 1957 she returned to Asia. Unable to re-enter China, she helped to start Hope Mission in Hong Kong to serve the needs of refugees from Mainland China. Later, she went to Taiwan and taught Mandarin as part of the Nationalist emphasis upon that language - she who had been judged “too old” to learn Chinese by the China Inland Mission!
As in China earlier, she found herself taking in needy children, eventually establishing the Gladys Aylward Orphanage. Her strength was failing because of advancing age and chronic ailments, so she sought help. Kathleen Langton arrived from England to shoulder the work, and a wealthy Englishman contributed money for a large orphanage, to which she transferred all but twenty children.
When she died in January, 1970, Aylward was honored by the Nationalist government and by memorial services all over the world. Hundreds of children revered her as “Auntie Glad.” She is buried on the grounds of Christ College, outside of Taipei, Taiwan.
Her “life verse” was Philippians 3:10: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
- Latham, R. O., Aylward, Gladys. (1950).
- Swift, Catherine. (1989).
- Thompson, Phyllis. (1971).
- The work of Gladys Aylward was memorialized in a 1959 film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. Most of the material for the film was derived from Alan Burgess, (1957).
- Aylward’s letters are in the archives at the SOAS, University of London.