Most Christians are familiar with the story of Gladys Aylward, the diminutive London parlour maid and missionary to China, enshrined in Alan Burgess’ best-selling book The Small Woman and in the 1959 Hollywood film The inn of the sixth happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. But there are many facets to Gladys’ story that are less well known. Colin Nevin, who visited Gladys’ remote village of Yangcheng and paid respects at her grave in Taiwan on behalf of her family in England, shares with Evangelical Times some discoveries about one of the Christian heroines of the twentieth century.
Gladys May Aylward was born in Edmonton, London, in 1902, into a working-class family; her parents both worked for the Post Office. Gladys became a parlour maid, as her progress in school was not outstanding.
After her conversion, she became increasingly concerned about the spiritual state of the millions of people in China who had never heard the gospel. Before long, she was cajoling friends and acquaintances into the idea of missionary service in that far-off land, but most were indifferent or laughed in derision.
On suggesting this to her brother, Lawrence, he turned the idea back on her and said, ‘If you’re so interested in China, why don’t you go yourself?’ Dumbfounded, the reality hit Gladys — and that’s exactly what she did.
Saving every spare penny she had, she put a deposit on a rail ticket to China, with the Trans-Siberian Railway. After being rejected by the China Inland Mission as not being ‘qualified’ enough to learn Chinese, Gladys had decided to go it alone — only she wasn’t alone.
She believed God had called her to go to China and she arrived, after a convoluted journey, at the village of Yangcheng, in the mountainous Shanxi province of northern China. Here she had arranged to assist an elderly, widowed missionary named Jeannie Lawson.
The widely known facts about Gladys are well documented. These include her role as the mandarin’s official foot inspector helping to put an end to the cruel custom of foot-binding women, and her teaching of Bible stories to muleteers who passed through her inn at Yangcheng, even after Mrs Lawson died leaving Gladys alone in a remote area of China.
Then there was her famous trek for many days over high mountain ranges, with nearly 100 orphaned children, during the Sino-Japanese war in the late 1930s, to eventual safety across the Yellow River.
As well as learning to read, write and speak fluent Chinese, and forgoing her British passport to become a naturalised Chinese citizen, this was the same missionary who had been deemed unqualified for Far Eastern challenges!
With God’s help, however, Gladys met every obstacle and is remembered today by millions the world over as the ‘small woman’ — a source of inspiration for those facing seeming impossible or insurmountable situations, including in foreign missions.
Most of all, Gladys Aylward is an example for everyday ordinary people, that they can rise to do something for God that will make a difference in people’s lives.
It is often forgotten that Gladys appeared on the popular television programme This is your life with Eamonn Andrews, on 14 May 1963. At this time, she had returned to England and was giving talks at churches and schools all over the country.
She also brought one of her adopted sons, Gordon, from her orphanage in Taiwan, which was the only place open to her after Communist China expelled all foreign missionaries.
Gladys was never to return to the country she loved, but Taiwan, then known as Formosa, had a burgeoning Chinese population, swollen by numbers of refugees fleeing the communist regime.
General Chiang Kai Shek personally asked her to help with the resettling programme and to assist with the centralisation of one common language, Mandarin Chinese, since so many other dialects hindered progress and communication.
Ironically, the British would not let her remain in Hong Kong, as she was no longer a British subject, despite her being reunited with one of her sons, Michael, there one day, as she walked down Nathan Road.
Nevertheless, she was invited for tea to Buckingham Palace with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Dressed in a brightly patterned Chinese gown, she presented the royal couple with a tapestry made by the children at her orphanage.
The Hollywood movie about her exploits had indeed made her famous, but she was known to be unhappy with many aspects of the film’s portrayal of her role as a Christian missionary.
The mountain scenes were shot in North Wales, not China, and news of intimate romantic scenes between her and a Chinese military official upset Gladys deeply. It is believed that Gladys never actually saw the movie herself, although she would have heard reports about it.
By that time (1959), she was based in Taipei and, despite it being a box office hit and favourite family film, Gladys received no money from it. The familiar scene of the children singing ‘Nick knack Paddy-whack, give the dog a bone, this old man came rolling home’ was based on the reality of them singing ‘Count your blessings’!
But the story of the mandarin of Yangcheng becoming a Christian, due to Gladys’ life and example, was true.
Spying for China
Another anomaly was that the diminutive parlour maid was portrayed by a rather tall and elegant Ingrid Bergman, although later Ms Bergman would comment on how much Gladys’ story had touched her, especially the part where she kneels by her bed in London with her Bible, a copy of Daily Light and a few pennies and prays, ‘Here I am Lord, use me!’ Sadly this part was clipped from the final film.
On a more serious side, Gladys Aylward did actually spy for the Chinese government, as she was able to travel through Japanese-occupied villages relatively unnoticed and pass on valuable information about their movements and manoeuvres to the Chinese army.
She was deemed harmless, as a ‘foreign’ missionary spreading God’s Word to people in the remote hamlets of northern Shanxi. This was to have a detrimental effect on fellow Welsh missionaries David and Jean Davies, who were in charge of a mission in nearby Tsehchow.
David Davies insisted that all missionaries as foreign nationals must remain strictly neutral and thereby not get involved in the political situation around them. Their task was clear — spreading the gospel — and they were trusted to a large extent by the authorities of either side, who would often leave the mission compounds unmolested.
Gladys, however, had no such compunction, since she did not regard herself as a ‘foreigner’ but a Chinese citizen. She felt it her duty to help the cause of her nation in any way she could and, if that meant passing on a little information, she was happy to do it.
Eventually though, the Japanese learned of her activities and she became a ‘wanted’ person, with handbills and posters being distributed, offering $100 for any information leading to her capture dead or alive.
She knew she was no longer safe and common sense prevailed when she at last decided to make the retreat from Yangcheng. That was when she fled with the 100 children to the safer region of Shaanxi.
To be concluded.