Born in London in 1902, Gladys Aylward left school at fourteen to become a shop assistant and parlour maid. Although her parents were Christian, Gladys’ Christianity was purely nominal, until she was converted by the Reverend F.W. Pitt. After reading a newspaper article about China’s traditional ways, she became passionately convinced that God had called her to China to preach the gospel to the people there. She applied to the China Inland Mission in 1929, but was eventually declined by them because of her inability to learn Chinese. Despite that, in 1932 she went via Moscow and Japan to China, where she joined a Scottish missionary, Jeannie Lawson, in Yangcheng. Mrs Lawson had been there for half a century, operating from The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, a hostel for muleteers. This was an acceptable way of making contact with the local people in an environment which was hostile to Christian missionaries.
The Chinese had difficulty pronouncing Gladys Aylward’s name, and called her “Ai Weh Teh” (The Virtuous One). She identified so closely with the local peasantry that she eventually became naturalised as a Chinese citizen. She was appointed by General Chiang Kai-Shek to serve as an inspector of feet, enforcing the abandonment of the ancient custom of foot-binding.
Following the Manchurian Incident of 1931 and the capture of the Chinese capital Nanking in 1937, the Japanese invaded her area. She cared for the wounded and orphaned, becoming involved (against the advice of other missionaries) with the Chinese Nationalist cause. She became regarded by the Japanese as a dangerous spy.
In April 1940 Gladys Aylward led one hundred Chinese children away from the battle zone in northern Shansi, across the mountains to Sian, where they would be comparatively safe from the Japanese invaders. The journey was very dangerous, and she became desperately ill for a time. She remained in China until 1949, when she returned to Britain. She was immediately in great demand because of her story, which she told with simplicity, biblical imagery and the certainty of faith.
In 1957 she returned to Asia, first to Hong Kong and then Taiwan, where she continued her work as a missionary among both the peasants and the American servicemen. She died in 1970 and is buried in Taipei.
For further reading:
Alan Burgess, The Small Woman, London: Evans Brothers, 1957.
Gladys Aylward was born in London in 1902. She spent her adult life as a missionary to the Chinese people, mainly in Yangcheng. She became a Chinese citizen, and was appointed by Chiang Kai-Shek to assist with the suppression of the custom of foot-binding. She is best remembered for her journey through the mountains in 1940 with Chinese children fleeing from the Japanese invaders. After 1957 she worked in Taiwan. She died there in 1970.
God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might. Isaiah 12:2