In 1930, a young woman named Gladys Aylward left the suburbs of London and set out for China, convicted that she was meant to preach the gospel to the people of this remote land. Rejected by the China Inland Mission because her “advanced age” of 28 made her too old to learn Chinese, she headed for the mission field entirely without support. Her resources were a meager two pounds nine pence, far short of the ship fare of the time, so her journey encompassed train, boat, bus, and mule before she finally arrived in the city of Yangchen in a mountainous region just south of present-day Beijing.
Upon arrival in Yangchen, Aylward teamed up with another lone missionary, an elderly Scotswoman named Jeannie Lawson. As practical as she was idealistic, Aylward realized immediately that the local people were not receptive to foreigners and that she needed a subtle and non-confrontational method of reaching them with the gospel. She and Lawson seized upon the idea of opening an inn that would attract the commercial travelers that came though Yangchen on their way to other cities. Along with clean beds, good food, and care for the travelers’ mules, the two women provided evening entertainment in the form of stories about a man named Jesus. The story-loving Chinese retold the Bible tales as they continued their travels, and the gospel message was soon spreading along with the fame of the innkeepers.
Despite the earlier predictions of the China Inland Mission, Aylward quickly mastered the local Chinese dialect and won the respect of the citizenry. Among her admirers was the Mandarin of Yangchen, who appointed her as the local foot inspector in charge of enforcing the new law against the ancient custom of foot binding. In this role, she traveled widely and was able to share Christ as she went about her official duties. Soon the Chinese were calling her “Ai-weh-deh,” which meant the “virtuous one.”
During her travels as foot inspector, Aylward came upon a woman begging by the road with a small child and soon learned that it was not the woman’s child but rather an orphan that she had kidnapped to aid her begging. Aylward bought the child for a handful of coins and took her under her own care. Soon that orphan was joined by another and then another, and Gladys Aylward’s mission to the orphans of China was born.
In 1938, war came to Yangchen when the Japanese bombed the city, killing many and driving the survivors to the mountains. By now a Chinese citizen, Aylward passed on military information to the Chinese army whenever she could. The Japanese placed a price of $100 on her head, but Aylward refused to seek her own safety (“Christians never retreat,” she wrote angrily to a Chinese guerilla warrior who wished to save her). Instead she gathered up the 100 orphans under her care and walked with them for twelve days and nights to the Yellow River. The government had seized all civilian boats to keep them out of Japanese hands, and there was seemingly no way to cross. Aylward and her orphans knelt, prayed, and sang, and soon their prayers were answered in the form of a Chinese patrol boat that gave them safe passage. Aylward delivered her charges to an orphanage at Xian and then collapsed with typhus fever. Upon recovery she traveled from village to village, caring for the wounded victims of the Chinese-Japanese conflict.
Although her health remained unstable for the rest of her life, Aylward continued her Christian work with characteristic fervor, starting a Christian church in Xian and working at a leper settlement in Szechwan. After suffering injuries during World War II, she returned to England in 1947, where she preached and lectured widely and founded the “Gladys Aylward Charitable Trust” for orphans. In 1953 she returned to China, where she ran an orphanage in Taipei, Taiwan.
During the latter years of her life, Aylward achieved international fame through a 1957 biography entitled Small Woman, which was made into the popular movie Inn of the Sixth Happiness starring Ingrid Bergman. Aylward was deeply embarrassed by the Hollywood version of her Christian walk and did not welcome the attention it brought her. Toward the end of her life, she wrote, “My heart is full of praise that one so insignificant, uneducated, and ordinary in every way could be used to his glory for the blessing of his people in poor persecuted China.” Aylward died in 1970 in Taiwan.
Reprinted with permission from PRISM Magazine, published by Evangelicals for Social Action.