Gladys Aylward (1902-1970) (2)
Colin Nevin continues looking at the striking life of Gladys Aylward, whose village in China and grave in Taiwan he visited recently. It is now over 80 years since Gladys first made her intrepid missionary journey to Tienstin, in 1932.
The Chinese language is difficult and broken into regional dialects. David Davies (who, along with Jean his wife, were Welsh missionaries to China) describes Gladys Aylward visiting his village mission station as someone who ‘chattered away to everyone in her own dialect’.
This description gives us a glimpse of the real Gladys. She was a remarkable character. Though her grammar and pronunciation of Chinese were never perfect, it never fazed her; she was always able to make herself understood!
In the Chinese culture then, it was considered honourable for a son to purchase the best coffins for his parents once they had reached middle age. This was considered a token of affection and esteem, not a reminder that their time on earth was drawing to a close.
Elaborate coffins were often put on display in the family home for visitors to note the devotion of their offspring. David Davies joked one night at the dinner table, with Gladys present, that if their son ever did such a thing, he would ‘pitch him and his coffins over the mountain top!’
Gladys in her inimitable way went into peals of laughter, adding, ‘And I’ve got no son to buy me a coffin to look at!’ Such exuberance was characteristic of the ‘small woman’.
The plagues of lice and insects that infested many of the public inns and poor squalid homes, in provinces like Shanxi, were terrible. Jean Davies was horrified to see women and children covered with lice, which her husband drily termed ‘China’s millions’.
But Gladys Aylward took such things in her stride, often scooping a handful of lice off her body and throwing it away or shaking insects from her hair without even stopping her flow of conversation.
She lived like the local people and adopted the many non-western idiosyncrasies. She would eat the same diet and was as adept at spitting out a piece of gristle from her mouth into the corner of the room, for the benefit of a waiting cat, as someone born in the village.
During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), one incident at the Tsehchow Mission involved drunken Japanese soldiers entering the women’s quarters of the mission to inflict assault and rape.
David Davies shouted at the top of his voice, Tao kao! (Pray!). The soldiers were shocked into an almost supernatural silence and slunk out without another word.
Gladys had been out visiting some local villages, and when she heard about this, she expostulated, ‘If I’d been there, I’d have given them a slice of my tongue!’
Jean Davies admonished the former parlour maid, saying, ‘I expect, Gladys, it was better for God to do it his way’.
As the war situation worsened, David Davies decided to move his wife and children to the safer area of Chefoo, where there was a China Inland Mission centre. Whilst the Davies were gone from Shanxi, services were held by Gladys and a Chinese Christian called Mr Lu.
David Davies chuckled to himself, ‘I bet Gladys is enjoying herself, running the show and ordering everyone about!’ Compared to the logical methods of the Davies, Gladys was inclined to be erratic. She also disagreed with David on the occasional use of alcohol on the mission premises.
He warned her from his experiences in his native Cardiff of the effect of strong drink on the local populace, as it was rumoured that soldiers had been drunk in the compound. Gladys agreed about the dangers of drink, having done street work herself, but answered, ‘But, you have entertained officers here!’
That was true, David admitted, ‘But there was never a drop of strong drink on the premises’.
Gladys replied, ‘I couldn’t entertain them without letting them drink and no harm was done’, ‘I know the country and I know the officers’.
It seemed she sometimes had an unusual way of rationalising things, yet her influence on the local people was unsurpassed.
It was at about this time that Gladys was told by David Davies to stop passing on information about the Japanese to the Chinese army (see February ET). ‘You must stop it’, he said. But Gladys replied, ‘I won’t!’
Gladys continued her ‘espionage’ until she had to flee from the danger with a price on her head, but sadly David Davies was arrested and suffered torture and ignominy at the hands of the Japanese in a filthy prison in Taiyuan, that lasted nearly four years.
The Davies’ eventually returned to Wales, but never blamed Gladys for their sufferings. They knew she had a great heart for China and remained close friends with her for many years afterwards.
One photograph of the Davies depicts them sitting in their living room in Wales, with a banner draped between them that had been sent from the Gladys Aylward Orphanage in Taiwan.
If Gladys Aylward were alive today, I have no doubt that she would be able to regale audiences with a rendition of her exploits in her unique manner. People flocked to hear her at venues across the UK and in other countries.
She took the opportunity to wake people out of spiritual slumber, as she challenged them to do something for God. Gladys was in many ways an enigma with her quirky personality, but then God often uses the simple things in this world to confound the wise.
Her story lives on, but in all things Gladys gave the glory back to God. We too can say Xie xie (‘Thank you’, in Chinese) to God for the life and personality of Gladys Aylward.