She was born in London in 1902 into a working-class family, and it was among that segment of society that she seemed doomed to carry out her existence. She entered the workforce at the age of fourteen and settled into a life of domestic service. She was a parlor maid, a genteel term for a house servant—a position that included heavy chores, long hours, and low pay—and a job that trapped some single women for the whole of their lives. The days were routine and dull, and the occasional nights off were cut short by an early curfew. Only in her fantasies did she break out of her drab existence. Here she moved in fast circles—drinking, smoking dancing, gambling, and attending theaters.
It was with this combination of fantasy and reality that Alyward moved through her twenties, and perhaps would have continued on into her thirties and beyond but for a significant change in her life. Although she had attended church occasionally, it was not until she was confronted by a stranger that she made profession of faith. With her conversion, her life changed, and she began dreaming about being a missionary. It was this dream that brought her to the CIM headquarters in 1929, and it was that same dream that would not die when she was denied candidacy after her probationary term was over. She was convinced that God was calling her, and if she could not obtain a mission’s sponsorship she would go on her own. So, alone in her little bedroom, once again employed as a parlor maid, she began planning for mission work in China. She began depositing all her scant savings with the ticket agent at the railway station. (Rail passage through Europe, Russia, and Siberia was the cheapest transportation available.) She also began reading and inquiring about China, which brought her in contact with Jeannie Lawson, an elderly widowed China missionary who was eager to have assistance. For Aylward that was a direct sign from God, and on October 15, 1932, tickets in hand, she departed from the Liverpool Street Station en route to China.
Bundled up in an orange frock worn over a coat, she was a curious looking traveler, resembling a gypsy more than a missionary. Besides her bedroll she carried suitcases (one stocked with food) and a bag clanking with a small stove and pots and pans. Despite the language barriers, her trip through Europe was relatively uneventful. Russia, however, was in the midst of an undeclared border war with China, and after passing through Moscow the train was packed with Russian troops. At every stop the validity of her tickets and passport were questioned,
Alone with hundreds of soldiers, crossing the stark Siberian landscape, she had second thoughts about her decision, but it was too late to turn back. Finally, the monotony of the train clanging along the frozen tracks ended. Without warning, she was told that she had gone as far as she would be allowed to travel. Only soldiers were allowed to stay on the train. She refused to get off, thinking that every mile was bringing her closer to China. The train continued several miles down the track, and then it stopped again. The sound of gunfire could be heard in the distance as the soldiers and supplies were unloaded. She found herself all alone in a deserted train only hundreds of yards away from the war zone. She had no choice but to trudge back on the snow-covered tracks to Chita. Her biographer, Alan Burgess, vividly recounts the ordeal:
The Siberian wind blew the powdered snow around her heels, and she carried a suitcase in each hand, one still decorated ludicrously with kettle and saucepan. Around her shoulders she wore the fur rug. And so she trudged off into the night, a slight, lonely figure, dwarfed by the tall, somber trees, the towering mountains, and the black sky, diamond bright with stars. There were wolves near by, but this she did not know. Occasionally in the forest a handful of snow would slither to the ground with a sudden noise, or a branch would crack under the weight of snow, and she would pause and peer uncertainly in that direction. But nothing moved. There was no light, no warmth, nothing but endless loneliness.
By dawn, after having taken a two-hour rest next to her little alcohol stove, she could see the lights of Chita in the distance. The worst ordeal of her journey was over. From Chita she was able to get rail passage into Manchuria, but even then she was only able to get into China only by making an unscheduled trip to Japan, where she received help from the British consul.
Once in China, she began the arduous trek across the mountains to Yangcheng, where Jeannie Lawson was faithfully continuing the work she and her husband had begun so many years earlier. Lawson welcomed her, but in her own way. She was a brusque woman who was not impressed by any sacrifice that Aylward had endured. After being shown around Aylward was assigned the work of being a missionary—that of operating an inn for muleteers who passed through Yangcheng on their route west. For Lawson it was an opportunity to share the gospel with the muleteers each evening, but for Aylward it was hard work—making her domestic work back in London seem like a genteel profession.
Despite the hard work and few rewards, this was an opportunity for her to become immersed in the culture. What she never could have learned in formal language training, she was readily picking up as she dealt with the muleteers. The Chinese tongue was not just a language of complex written characters, but a language of emotion and feeling, and it was through this facet of the language that she learned to communicate. But if she was making progress in communicating with the Chinese, she was regressing in her ability to communicate with Lawson—if, in fact, they ever had truly communicated. Lawson’s set ways and Aylward’s independent spirit clashed, and finally after a heated argument (less than a year after her arrival), Aylward was ordered to leave. With nowhere else to go, she moved in with some CIM missionaries in another town; but when word came some time later that Lawson was ill, she rushed back to be at her side and cared for her until she died several weeks later.
With the death of Lawson, she no longer had the financial support needed to operate the inn, but a new opportunity opened up—one that gave her a far wider influence. She was asked by the Chinese magistrate of Yangcheng to become the local foot inspector. It became her job to go from house to house, making sure the new laws against female foot-binding were being upheld. It was an exciting opportunity for her to improve her language skills, to get to know the people, and to share the gospel.
As she traveled around, her ministry blossomed. Wherever she went people came out to see her and to listen to her Bible stories. As she visited and revisited villages, her prestige grew and the people began to view her as an authority figure—so much so that on one occasion she was called on to use her prowess to put down a prison riot. She made friends and converts, and the future for her ministry seemed bright. But outside her little world around Yangcheng in the Shansi Province, massive plots and military maneuvers were taking place. It was a period of time when the yet-obscure guerrilla leader, Mao Tse Tung, was building his revolutionary force, and when Japan was amassing thousands of troops on the Manchurian border.
But life went on in Yangcheng as usual until the summer of 1937. The once peaceful mountain villages of Shansi suddenly became targets of Japanese bombing raids. Aylward, who had recently become a Chinese citizen, stayed on; and in the spring of 1938, when Yangcheng itself was bombed, she refused to leave until the last casualties were accounted for.
The war had a profound effect on her. On the one hand it brought courage and physical endurance that she herself did not recognize. She moved behind enemy lines, bringing supplies and assistance to villagers, and served so effectively as a spy for the Chinese military that there was a price on her head. But on the other hand, the ravages of war made her realize how very alone and vulnerable she really was. To those around her she was strong, but deep down inside she longed for a husband.
Marriage was something that she had never ruled out. Even before the war she had prayed for a husband and dreamed that one day her Prince Charming might come walking into Yangcheng. He never came—at least the one of her fantasies. But the war did bring another man into her life. His was Linnen, a Chinese military officer—the man who convinced her to become a spy against the Japanese. At first it was mutual patriotism that brought them together, but as time passed a romantic relationship developed, and as the suffering and hardships of war increased, her desire for marriage and security grew more intense. She wrote home to her family in England that she was planning to marry him. But the marriage never took place. In the devastated war-torn countryside nothing short of death seemed certain, and plans were made to be broken.
There were others who needed her love and attention more than Linnen. She had children to care for. Ninepence was her first child—a tiny abandoned girl she had purchased for that amount. And as the years passed she “adopted” more, and in addition to her own there were dozens of war orphans that depended on her for sustenance. It was this overwhelming responsibility that loomed above all else, impelling her to leave Shansi with her brood of nearly one hundred children in the spring of 1940 and to cross the mountains and the Yellow River into safety beyond the border.
The journey was a harrowing one. Enemy troops were never far away, and moving unnoticed with nearly one hundred noisy children was a constant emotional strain. When at last they reached their destination, she collapsed from mental and physical exhaustion, and the children were scattered in refugee housing. After months of care by a missionary couple, Aylward slowly regained her strength, but mentally she remained impaired—suffering hallucinations and wandering around the village unable to find her way home. But as the months passed, the period of mental confusion decreased, and she was able once again to reestablish contact with her scattered children and minister to others.
By 1943, with the Japanese retreating, she was back again in China living with CIM missionaries. But she was restless and moved on finally settling in Chengtu, where she eventually became employed by a local church as a Bible woman—a role heretofore that had always been reserved for native Chinese women. Yet, that lowly position was one she accepted with honor, serving the church in evangelism and charity work.
In 1949, after nearly twenty years in China, she was persuaded to make a visit home, and it was on that furlough that the “small woman” of China won her way to the hearts of the British people. Ill at ease in Western culture, she would have preferred to remain in the background, but her mother, serving as her daughter’s agent, had different ideas for her. For many years her mother had eagerly accepted speaking invitations to deliver her one and only address, “Our Gladys in China,” and now that her daughter had returned home she proudly introduced her to her audiences.
In the years that followed, through a popular biography (The Small Woman by Alan Burgess), a film (“The Inn of Six Happinesses,” starring Ingrid Bergman), and a “This is Your Life” feature on BBC, Aylward became an internationally known celebrity. Though she returned to minister and make her home in Taiwan in 1957, she continued her world travel and was never out of the limelight, speaking in such places as the Hollywood First Presbyterian Church and dining with such dignitaries as Queen Elizabeth.
Yet through all the service she had rendered and the fame she had acquired, she was never fully secure in her calling—particularly that God really wanted to entrust a woman with the responsibilities he had given her. In an interview during her later years she confided her doubts to a friend: “I wasn’t God’s first choice for what I’ve done for China. There was somebody else.… I don’t know who it was—God’s first choice. It must have been a man—a wonderful man. A well-educated man. I don’t know what happened. Perhaps he died. Perhaps he wasn’t willing.… And God looked down … and saw Gladys Aylward.”