Petite and dark-haired, the woman would not have looked out of place in any Chinese city during the early 19th century. But upon closer inspection, one could see that she was a foreigner. She was Gladys Aylward, an intrepid English missionary who is renowned for her work among the orphans in Yangcheng County during one of the most turbulent periods in Chinese history.
Gladys May Aylward was born in the district of Edmonton in London on the 24th of February, 1902. Her parents, Thomas John and Rosina Aylward, belonged to the Anglican church.
. Gladys’s family came from a humble background. She was only 14 when she had to quit school and work as a housemaid to help her family. Her humble occupation, however, did not stop her from dreaming of becoming a missionary.
Twelve years later, Ms. Aylward finally worked up the courage to send an application to the China Inland Mission. She was accepted to study a preliminary course for missionaries, but then she hit a roadblock. It seemed Gladys did not have the aptitude to learn Mandarin. In addition, she was already older than most applicants at that time, so she was not allowed to continue the training.
This rejection did not stop her from pursuing her dream of serving the Lord as a missionary in China. She was working at that time as a parlor maid for Sir Francis Younghusband (the famous British military officer and explorer of Asia) when she heard of the request written by a certain Mrs. Jennie Lawson.
Mrs. Lawson, an elderly widow, was working as a missionary in China when she made an invitation for another missionary to join and help her. Gladys grabbed the opportunity and wrote to Mrs. Lawson to tell her that she had accepted her invitation. An expensive sea voyage, however, was out of the question as she did not have enough money or a sponsor.
With her meager life savings, Gladys paid for a cheaper railway ticket via the Trans-Siberian Railway. She left England for China on the 15th of October, 1932.
The journey in itself was difficult, but it became more challenging because of her lack of money to purchase food and other necessities. Gladys was also briefly detained by Soviet officers, but she was able to escape with the help of the locals and by hitching a ride on a Japanese ship. She was able to land in China after making a detour in Japan.
She met Mrs. Lawson in Yangcheng County after traveling for several weeks across Japan and eastern China. Together, they established The Inn of the Eight Happinesses (Love, Virtue, Gentleness, Tolerance, Loyalty, Truth, Beauty, and Devotion). The inn served as a pitstop for merchants and other travelers en route to the western parts of China. Apart from provisions, the duo also told any guests who were willing to listen some Bible stories to convert them to Christianity.
Gladys proved her former teacher wrong when she went on to become fluent in Mandarin. She also became one of the most respected persons in Yangcheng.
During this time, China was trying to break free from old customs. One of these customs was the practice of foot binding (lotus feet). One day, a high-ranking local official approached Gladys and asked her to become his assistant. Her role was to become a “foot inspector.” As a foot inspector, her job was to make sure parents would not bind their daughters’ feet as mandated by the new Chinese government.
Despite her small stature, Gladys was a formidable presence in Yangcheng. The local authorities have come to trust her and rely on her wisdom. In Yangcheng, she was not just another missionary and inn-keeper. During a particularly violent prison riot, the local authorities were forced to approach the petite Ms. Aylward to intervene to the prisoners on their behalf.
Gladys was able to convert some of the locals to Christianity during her early years in Yangcheng. It was also during this time that she took several orphans under her wing. Mrs. Lawson had died by then, so she was free to turn the inn into an orphanage.
During the Second World War
The Second Sino-Japanese War began in 1937. The coastal cities of China were already overrun by Japanese soldiers, but Gladys heard that they were marching westward and could Yangcheng soon. To protect herself and her charges from the Japanese soldiers, Gladys decided to evacuate them all to the city of Xi’an in 1938. She and a companion named Feng were in charge of as much as 100 children in this desperate march west.
She led her ragtag crew through trails and mountains to escape detection and strafing from Japanese warplanes. There were also days when they were not so lucky. The children suffered through hunger, illness, and being exposed to the elements.
Gladys herself was wounded after she was shot at by Japanese soldiers. This was followed by a bout of serious illness, but she continued caring for the children and bringing people to Christ after her recovery. She and the children finally found refuge in a Buddhist monastery in a remote valley in far west China.
It was not until 1949 that Ms. Aylward decided to take a long-due furlough. She also needed to leave China because the Communist Party of China already controlled much of the country and its partisans were threatening the lives of Christian missionaries.
With a heavy heart, Ms. Aylward sailed back to England. She left the country as a humble parlor maid, but came back to great acclaim thanks to her heroic efforts as a Christian missionary in her adopted country. At home, she met prominent English personalities, including as Queen Elizabeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Her life became the subject of several books and a Hollywood film. This film was entitled The Inn of Sixth Happiness, and starred the acclaimed Hollywood actress, Ingrid Bergman. Despite the star-studded cast, Ms. Aylward was unhappy with the inaccuracies in the film, as well as some of the embellishments made by its writers.
The Final Years
Gladys spent ten years in England before she decided to come back to Asia. She had wanted to come back to mainland China, but it was not to be as the Communist Party of China was hostile to missionaries.
She first traveled to Hong Kong, but then decided to go to Taiwan instead. In 1958, she founded a new orphanage in Taipei, and it was named the Gladys Aylward Orphanage. She worked with orphans in Taiwan before her death in 1970. She is buried in the Christ’s College cemetery in New Taipei City, Taiwan.
Norman, J.G.G. The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Edited by J. D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns, Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
Swift, Catherine M. Gladys Aylward. Bethany House, 1989.
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