Aylward, Gladys (1902–1970)

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Aylward, Gladys (1902–1970)

English missionary in China and Taiwan who worked to end the traditional Chinese practice of binding women's feet, led a large group of orphans out of occupied China, and set up orphanages in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Name variations: Ai-wehdeh, Ai Weh Teh, Hsiao Fu-jeh. Pronunciation: AIL-wood. Born Gladys May Aylward on February 24, 1902, in Edmonton, north of London, England; died of influenza on January 2, 1970, in Taipei, Taiwan; daughter of a postman and a postal worker; left school at 14; at 28, studied for three months at the China Inland Mission in London; never married; children: adopted five officially, many unofficially.

Left school to work as a shop assistant; later went into domestic service; became an evangelical Christian at age 18 (1920); began training at the China Inland Mission but was not recommended for further training (1928); went back into domestic service in London; finally departed for China (1930); settled in Yangcheng in Shensi (or Shansi) province; helped set up an inn and appointed Inspector of Feet; adopted Chinese nationality (1936); led about 100 orphans out of war-torn China to safety in Sian (1940); worked in Tsingsui, near Lanchow in northwest China (1944); moved to Chengtu, Szechwan, where she continued her missionary work and was appointed Biblewoman at the Chinese Seminary (1945); returned to England (1949); went to Hong Kong and then Taiwan, settling in Taipei where she set up an orphanage (1957).

In late April 1940, an oxcart stopped outside the Scandinavian-American Mission in Hsing-P'ing (Xingping), northwest China, to deliver the fragile body of a 38-year-old Western woman who was delirious and on the verge of death. Across her back, she bore the scar of a recent bullet wound. Sent to the hospital in Sian (Xi'an), she was diagnosed with typhoid fever and internal injuries, but a month passed before she was identified. She was Gladys Aylward, also called Ai-weh-deh (the Virtuous One), a Christian evangelist who had brought many children to safety from behind the Japanese lines. Remarkably, Aylward survived, believing that God had more work for her to do.

Gladys May Aylward was born in north London on February 24, 1902, and grew up a high-spirited, happy child. "She remembered her father coming home," wrote her biographer Alan Burgess, "clumping up the road in his heavy postman's boots." Her mother would be in the kitchen preparing tea, while Gladys and her sister Violet would be "screaming around the house or running wild with the other children in the street." During World War I, when the Zeppelins came over to bomb London, wrote Burgess:

she remembered how she'd first discovered the antidote to being "frightened." She would bring all the children in the street into the front parlor and sit them down against the inside wall. Then she would sit at the tiny old foot-operated organ, pedal furiously and scream out a hymn at a decibel scale calculated to reach almost as high as those ominous silver cocoons droning through the sky.

Aylward tried hard as a student, but she did not fare well at school. At age 14, she quit to work in a penny bazaar and then a grocer's shop. At the cessation of war, she went into domestic service as a parlormaid in London's West End. Aylward loved being in the heart of the big city, and in particular going to the theater. Like many young girls, she dreamed of becoming an actress.

Though she had been brought up a Christian, Aylward's only religious experience was going to Sunday school. She was 18 on the evening she allowed herself, somewhat against her will, to be led by a group of young evangelicals into a church meeting. When it was over, writes Phyllis Thompson :

She was hurrying to get away … when someone at the door grasped her hand, enquired her name, and then said, "Miss Aylward, I believe God is wanting you." Gladys was alarmed. "No fear!" she said quickly, "I don't want any of that!"

But the encounter must have made a strong impression. Aylward went back to see the cleric of the church and decided to join the movement. "Her friends," wrote Burgess, "seeing which way her inclinations were turning, declared quite bluntly that she was 'barmy.' 'Don't be silly, Glad,' they protested…. '[L]et's go phone those nice chaps we met in the park.'"

Sometime after, in her late 20s, Aylward read a newspaper commentary about China and the millions of people who had never heard of the Gospel. The article was to change her life. She sought training at the China Inland Mission (C.I.M.) in London, but she soon found the study of theology and languages difficult. After three months in the program, the chair of the C.I.M. committee reported: "It is with great regret that I have to recommend to you that we do not accept Miss Aylward. She has a call to serve God—she is sincere and courageous—but we cannot take the responsibility of sending a woman of 26, with such limited Christian experience and education, to China." She was also too old, he felt, to learn the Chinese language.

Aylward knew her weaknesses and appreciated the mission's concern that she would find it hard to learn a Chinese dialect. She remained convinced, however, that God meant her to serve in China. Sent by the C.I.M. to Bristol to work as housekeeper for a retired missionary couple who had just returned from China, she learned a great deal through stories of their experiences and their deep faith in God.

Aylward next went to work as a Rescue Sister of "fallen women" near the docks of Swansea in South Wales. There, the five-foot, 110-pound Aylward wandered the streets, talking to the homeless, penniless women and girls, and led them back to the hostel run by the mission for down-and-outs. The younger prostitutes thanked her; the older ones began treating her with "tolerant amusement."

"Although these experiences had strengthened Gladys' spirit," wrote Burgess, "they had added nothing to her bank balance. It became more and more obvious that if she was ever going to get to China … she would have to pay her own fare." The only way she knew to make money was as a housemaid, so she returned to London, bent on saving up enough to travel to the East by herself. But the first day at her new post in Belgrave Square, she began to despair of ever reaching China. Sitting alone on her bed in her new quarters, she placed the few coins she had on her Bible and cried out, "Oh God, here's my Bible! Here's my money! Here's me! Use me!" At that moment her door was opened by a housemaid calling Aylward downstairs; their mistress wished to reimburse her for her travel fare. Those three shillings became a sign from God, the beginning of her fund toward a ticket to China. "In spirit," wrote Burgess, "she was half way there."

Aylward worked evenings and weekends to earn money. The people at the railway ticket office tried to explain to her that the cheapest way to China was by water and would cost £90. Yes, they agreed, there was an even cheaper way—overland through Holland, Germany, Poland, and Russia, then through Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, until she made a junction connection with the Manchurian railway, which would take her to a steamer that would take her to Tientsin—but that route was impossible because there was an undeclared war on between Russia and China. Realizing that their unlikely traveler was not to be deterred from making the long, dangerous journey, they allowed her to pay little by little on her ticket toward the full amount.

As yet, Aylward had no specific destination in China. She learned of a 73-year-old missionary named Jeannie Lawson , who, upon returning to England, was immediately miserable and went back to China. Lawson was seeking a young person to help her continue her work. Aylward wrote to her, and the two agreed to meet at Tientsin (Tianjin). On October 18, 1930, Aylward finally set out from Liverpool Street Station on her arduous overland journey with two £1 traveler's checks and ninepence sewn into her corset. She carried two suitcases. One held her clothes; the other contained corned beef, fish, beans, crackers, soda biscuits, rye crisp, tea, coffee, hard-boiled eggs, a sauce pan, a kettle, and an alcohol stove.

Ten days later, she crossed into Siberia. As the train progressed, soldiers got on and civilians got off at each stop. At the town of Chita, a railway official tried to persuade her to disembark, but Aylward could not understand what he was saying and insisted on staying aboard. Hours later, the train halted, the lights went out, and the soldiers got off. Aylward was now alone, and at the front line of the war about which she had been warned. With no choice other than to make the long walk back down the tracks to Chita, she carried her baggage through the freezing snow, trusting in God to protect her.

From Chita, Aylward managed to find her way to Vladivostok, where she was to make another connection. Though she had paid her fare from London to Tientsin, it soon became apparent that her ticket was useless. She was also nearly penniless, and officials, desperate for skilled factory workers, wanted to keep her in Russia. While in her hotel, she was approached by an English-speaking woman who warned her that if she did not get out of the country immediately she might be sent to a remote part of Russia and never be heard from again. Scrutinizing Aylward's passport, the stranger pointed out that an official had changed Aylward's profession from missionary to machinist. The woman arranged for Aylward's escape and travel by the first ship out. Its destination: Japan.

In Kobe, Japan, Aylward was able to stay at the Mission Hall before turning in her unused vouchers for a steamer to Tientsin. There, she was told that Mrs. Lawson was in a mission at Tsechow in Shensi (Shaanxi) province, north of the Yellow River in northwest China, many weeks away by train, bus, and mule. A Mr. Lu offered to escort her. When they arrived at the mission, they were told that Lawson was in Yangcheng (Yangzheng), a walled town two days away, along an ancient mule trail between Honan and Hopeh. The country, she was warned, was unpenetrated by Christianity. Wild and mountainous, the area was filled with bandits, immense stretches of lonely roads, and primitive people who thought all foreigners were devils.

Aylward finally found Lawson living in a house on the main road outside the city gate, amid private houses and inns. Though the house was a wreck, it was large and had a courtyard, and Lawson wanted to turn it into an inn for muleteers. Her plan was to read Bible stories at night to the guests, who would then spread news of the inn as they traveled the country. The Inn of Eight Happinesses was soon opened and quickly boycotted. When the local inhabitants weren't throwing clods of earth at Aylward or calling her a foreign devil, they were dragging her to witness judicial beheadings. It became Aylward's job to stand in the road when a muletrain appeared, announcing, "Muyo beatch, muyo goodso, how, how, how, lai, lai, lai." ("We have no bugs, we have no fleas, good, good, good, come, come, come."), then grab the head of the lead mule to pull it into the inn.

Aylward also accompanied Lawson on her visits to neighboring villages to preach and tell stories. ("The story I'm going to tell you tonight, concerns a man called Jesus Christ whose honorable ancestor was the Great God who lived in the clouds high above.") Gradually, she picked up the local dialect. A year later, the 74-year-old Lawson fell off a balustrade and was severely injured. Before she died, she told Aylward: "God called you to my side, Gladys; He wants you to carry on His work here. He will provide. He will bless and protect you."

By this time, a government decree had been passed in China, prohibiting the tradition of binding the feet of girls at birth. In the view of the ancients, binding stunted the foot's natural growth, keeping it small but attractive. The local mandarin, a powerful figure responsible for the administration of Yangcheng, needed a woman with "big feet," who had not been crippled by the custom, to travel throughout the province and verify that the cruel tradition was no longer being observed. Thus, Gladys Aylward, who wore a size three, became Inspector of Feet, traveling the province on a mule accompanied by two soldiers. For this job, she received one daily measure of millet and money for vegetables, recompense that was sorely needed at the mission at Yangcheng. After capitalizing on the opportunity at every village to tell her stories, Aylward would then state her case to the women plainly:

If God intended little girls to have horrible stubby little feet, he'd have made them like that in the first place, wouldn't he? Feet are to walk with, not to shuffle up and down with, aren't they? I don't care if the husbands say you should do it or not. They should try it sometimes, and see if they like hobbling about on little club feet. Any man who tells you to do it goes to prison at once; that's the law now.

Generally, as girls were unbound, wiggling their toes with delight, the women of the town would cheer. Gladys Aylward had gained "much face."

Aylward's years at the inn were happy. "This is indeed my country and these are my people," she wrote her family. "I live now completely as a Chinese woman. I wear their clothes, eat their food, speak their language—even their dialect—and I am thinking like they do." Aylward's religion was never a complex, theoretical spirituality but a simple belief in God's power for good, which relied on humility, love, and faith. She didn't try to inflict Christian morality. Always penniless and living among the people she helped, she was driven by a compassion for human suffering.

In 1936, Aylward became a naturalized Chinese citizen. By that time, China and Japan had been pursuing an undeclared war for several years. In July 1937, the full-scale, official Sino-Japanese war was underway. The following year, when the Japanese bombing reached Yangcheng, one raid destroyed the town as well as the inn. Aylward was rescued from beneath the rubble. Amid the chaos, she improvised a hospital and established small Christian communities in the region, sometimes visiting villages under Japanese occupation and reporting any observations on her travels that might prove useful to the Chinese Nationalists. She had been asked to work in this capacity by a young Chinese colonel, a member of Chiang Kai-shek's intelligence service, who had set up headquarters in her city. Yangcheng was considered an important military objective and changed hands several times, often forcing the townspeople into caves in the hills. Aylward began to report regularly to the colonel and in the process fell in love. Wrote Burgess:

They talked at odd moments in between battles and births and baptisms. They exchanged scraps of news, had a meal together, talked of the future they would build in the new China. His concern, his gentleness, his tenderness toward her never wavered. They discussed marriage; he was eager that they should marry at once, live together as man and wife as best they could, war or no war. It was Gladys who said, "No." The war had to be won first…. She wrote to her family in faraway England and told them that she was going to marry a Chinese, and hoped that they would understand.

She would later learn that she had waited too long; she and her Chinese colonel would go their separate ways.

The war left many children orphaned, and most of those in Yangcheng were brought to Aylward, who lived in the bombed out inn. Eventually, she found herself in charge of more than 200 unruly children, including five of her own that she had officially adopted. She taught them lessons, read them stories from the Bible, and begged food from everyone, including the Japanese, to keep them fed. Aware that Madame Chiang Kai-shek (Song Meiling ) had started a fund for government-run orphanages, Aylward wrote for help and was told that the children would be looked after if she could get them to Sian, in Free China, and that money would be sent for the work of the Mission in Yangcheng. Aylward directed one of her converts, Tsin Pen-kuang, to set off with about 100 orphans toward the Yellow River (Huang He), which they would cross, then take the railway to Sian. Five weeks later, she heard that they had arrived safely and that Tsin Pen-kuang was returning to escort the rest of the children out. But along the way, he and the funds were captured by the Japanese; it was presumed that Tsin Pen-kuang had been shot.

As the situation grew worse and the Chinese army was preparing to retreat, Aylward organized another large group of orphans and had them taken to safety nearby. Believing that "Christians never retreat," she returned to Yangcheng and intended to stay, until she learned that the impending Japanese army had put a price on her head because of her intelligence work for the Chinese Nationalists. Praying for guidance, she opened her Bible, and her eyes fell on the words, "Flee ye; flee ye into the mountains." The Japanese arrived that very night. Amid a hail of bullets, Aylward barely escaped the city to join the children; one bullet grazed her shoulder blades.

Though she had no money, Aylward decided to take the second group of orphans to Sian. The Japanese occupation was now so extensive that the only route open was a dangerous one, over the mountains and down to the 3,000-mile-long Yellow River. Taking just a little grain for food, she set off with approximately 100 children, most of them aged four to sixteen.

Following mule tracks over the mountains, the band slept in whatever shelter they could find with only each other for warmth; many of the smaller children had to be carried by the older ones. Aylward always carried at least one child while others clung to her. As they all grew more and more tired, she sang hymns to keep up their spirits. On the 12th day, they came in sight of the Yellow River, which was swift, deep, and about a mile across. When they reached the town of Yuan Chu on its banks, they found it deserted except for a few soldiers. There was no food to be had, and, worse, the ferry to cross the river was nowhere in sight. At any moment, the Japanese were expected to arrive.

Unable to decide what to do, Aylward waited on the banks of the river for three days, despairing of a boat. Then a young girl asked Aylward if she believed the story of Moses taking the children of Israel across the Red Sea. When Aylward said that she did, the girl asked, "Then why don't we go across?" Aylward replied, because "I'm not Moses." The child responded, "Of course you're not Moses, but God is God! He can open the river for us." The words renewed Aylward's faith, and she knelt down to pray. Their encampment was soon interrupted with the arrival of a Chinese officer. When Aylward explained that they were harmless refugees, the officer signaled to the Chinese across the river, and boats were sent to carry them to safety.

Life is pitiful, death so familiar, suffering and pain so common, yet I would not be anywhere else.

—Gladys Aylward, during the Japanese occupation of China

After a few days of rest in the town of Mien Chu, Aylward and the children continued their journey by foot and by rail, then crossed another mountain range until they finally reached Sian in late April 1940. They had traveled for 27 days, only to find that the city was full and closed to more refugees. They journeyed another day, to an orphanage in the nearby town of Fufeng. Only a few hours after Aylward deposited the children, she collapsed from exhaustion. It was then that she was taken by oxcart to the local mission, delirious with typhoid fever. Over the following months, she recovered slowly in a hospital in Sian under the care of two English missionaries.

The following years were restless ones for Aylward. She first worked among the refugees in Sian, and, in 1944, as conditions of war subsided, she moved to a remote village called Tsingsui, some distance from Lanchow (Lanzhou), in northwestern China. She then felt called to work in Szechwan (Sichuan), in the hot and humid south of China, where she stayed for four years. In the city of Chengtu (Chengdu), she prayed and preached with the missionaries of the C.I.M., was appointed Biblewoman at the Chinese Theological Seminary, and worked with lepers. She also adopted a young Chinese Christian named Gordon, whom she nursed back to health after an accident left him without the use of his hands for some time.

By 1948, the Communists' hold on China caused many to flee the country, including missionaries, who were prime targets. Aylward remained unconcerned about her safety, while friends feared for her life; she was finally persuaded to visit her family whom she had not seen for 17 years. Donations paid for the fare.

Arriving in England in the spring of 1949, Aylward soon found fame when Alan Burgess, a producer from the BBC, dramatized her story in a program called "Gladys Aylward: One of the Undefeated." A booklet and later a book called The Small Woman were written with her cooperation, and, though not a professional speaker, she gave many talks, chatting naturally about the extraordinary events of her life. Her audiences found her captivating. Although

she did not enjoy the talks, she found it an effective way to raise money for more Chinese mission work.

But Aylward missed China. Though she made many friends in London's Chinese community, she did not feel at home in England. She was disturbed by stories of the horrors of life in China under Communist rule but was persuaded that a return there would be too dangerous. In 1957, after the death of her mother, she finally felt free to leave England again. She stayed for a short while in Hong Kong, working among the refugees from Communism, and went later that same year to the island of Formosa, known today as Taiwan, which was the home of Free China. Over the following years, she ran mission halls and orphanages and traveled the world on speaking and preaching tours, raising money for her work. She settled in the city of Taipei and adopted many children.

Two distressing events marked Aylward's later life. One was the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman , based on the book about her life. Although she had signed an agreement with 20th Century-Fox, she felt her work was cheapened by the story, which distorted events and was changed to include a love scene. In addition, the husband of one of her adopted daughters, who was the superintendent of the Aylward Orphanage in Taipei, caused a scandal when he abused Aylward's trust by embezzling funds. Otherwise, Aylward was happy in the work of her last years in Taipei, which were spent peacefully among the people she loved. At age 67, she caught influenza and died on January 2, 1970. The fame of her work led to memorial services around the world. Today her accomplishments continue through a children's home in Taipei, the Hope Mission in Hong Kong, and the Gladys Aylward Charitable Trust, based in England.


Burgess, Alan. The Small Woman. London: Evans Brothers, 1957 (reprinted by Pan Books, London).

Gladys Aylward: One of the Undefeated. London: Edinburgh House Press, 1950.

Hunter, C. Gladys Aylward. Eastbourne, England: Coverdale, 1970.

Thompson, Phyllis. A London Sparrow: The Story of Gladys Aylward. London: Word Books, 1971 (reprinted by Pan Books, London).

related media:

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, a film romanticizing the journey of Aylward and the orphans from China to Sian, starring Ingrid Bergman as Aylward and Athene Seyler as Mrs. Lawson, 20th Century-Fox Films, 1958.

Francesca Baines , freelance writer, London, England