Gladys Aylward

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Gladys May Aylward
Gladys Aylward.jpg
Missionary to China
Born(1902-02-24)24 February 1902
Died3 January 1970(1970-01-03) (aged 67)
Resting placeNew Taipei, Taiwan
Other names艾偉德
CitizenshipBritish subject (1902-1936)
Republic of China (1936-1970)
EducationSilver Street School, Edmonton, London
OccupationChristian missionary
OrganizationGladys Aylward Orphanage
Known forChristian Missionary to China
Home townLondon

Gladys May Aylward (24 February 1902 – 1 January 1970) was a British-born evangelical Christian missionary to China, whose story was told in the book The Small Woman, by Alan Burgess, published in 1957, and made into the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman, in 1958. The film was produced by Twentieth Century Fox, and filmed entirely in North Wales and England.[1]

Early life[edit]

Aylward was born to a working-class family in Edmonton, North London, in 1902. Her parents were Thomas John Aylward and Rosina Florence Aylward (née Whiskin). Her siblings were Laurence and Violet.[2] She worked as a domestic worker (housemaid)in a posh house from her early teens,she always asked herself why she was short and had black eyes and hair instead of blond hair and blue eyes like the people she worked for.She later felt a calling to go overseas as a Christian missionary. She was accepted by the China Inland Mission to study a preliminary three-month course for aspiring missionaries, but was not offered further training due to lack of progress in learning the Chinese language.[3]

On 15 October 1932, having worked for Sir Francis Younghusband,[4] she spent her life savings on a train passage to Yangcheng, Shanxi Province, China. The perilous trip took her across Siberia with the Trans-Siberian Railway. She was detained by the Russians, but managed to evade them with local help and took a lift from a Japanese ship. She traveled across Japan with the help of the British Consul and took another ship to China.

Work in China[edit]

On her arrival in Yangcheng, Aylward worked with an older missionary, Jeannie Lawson, to found The Inn of the Eight Happinesses,[5] (八福客栈 bāfú kèzhàn in Chinese) the name based on the eight virtues: Love, Virtue, Gentleness, Tolerance, Loyalty, Truth, Beauty and Devotion.[6] There, she and Mrs. Lawson not only provided hospitality for travellers, but would also share stories about Jesus, in hopes of sharing the Gospel. For a time she served as an assistant to the Chinese government as a "foot inspector" by touring the countryside to enforce the new law against footbinding young Chinese girls. She met with much success in a field that had produced much resistance, including sometimes violence against the inspectors.[4]

Aylward became a national of the Republic of China in 1936 and was a revered figure among the people, taking in orphans and adopting several herself, intervening in a volatile prison riot and advocating prison reform, risking her life many times to help those in need.[7] In 1938, the region was invaded by Japanese forces and Aylward led more than 100 orphans to safety over the mountains, despite being wounded herself. She not only led the orphans to safety, but personally cared for them and converted many of them to Christianity. She never married, but spent her entire life devoting herself to Christian work with the people of China.

She was repatriated to Britain at the beginning of the Second World War, and taught young children at Basingstoke Preparatory School for several years. After about 10 years she sought to return to China, and after rejection by the Communist government and a stay in British administered Hong Kong, finally settled in Taiwan in 1958. There, she founded the Gladys Aylward Orphanage,[8] where she worked until her death in 1970.[9]

The Inn of the Sixth Happiness[edit]

A film based on her life, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, was released in 1958. It drew from the book The Small Woman, by Alan Burgess. Although she found herself a figure of international interest due to the popularity of the film, and television and media interviews, Aylward was mortified by her depiction in the film and the liberties it took.[citation needed] The tall (1.75m/5' 9"), blonde Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman was inconsistent with Aylward's small stature, dark hair and North London accent. The struggles of Aylward and her family to effect her initial trip to China were disregarded in favour of a movie plot device of an employer "condescending to write to 'his old friend' Jeannie Lawson." Also, Aylward's dangerous, complicated travels across Russia, China and Japan were reduced to, "a few rude soldiers", after which, "Hollywood's train delivered her neatly to Tsientsin."[10] Many characters and place names were changed, even when these names had significant meaning, such as those of her adopted children and the name of the inn, named instead for the Chinese belief in the number 8 as being auspicious. For example, in real life she was given the Chinese name 艾偉德 (Ài Wěi Dé- a Chinese approximation to 'Aylward' – meaning 'Virtuous One'), however in the film she was given the name 真爱 Jen-Ai,( pronounced- Zhen-Ai, meaning "true love").[11] Colonel Linnan was portrayed as half-European, a change which she found insulting to his real Chinese lineage, and she felt her reputation was damaged by the Hollywood-embellished love scenes in the film. Not only had she never kissed a man, but the film's ending portrayed her character leaving the orphans to re-join the colonel elsewhere,[12] even though in reality she did not retire from working with orphans until she was 60 years old.[13]

Death and legacy[edit]

Aylward died on 3 January 1970, just short of her 68th birthday, and is buried in a small cemetery on the campus of Christ's College in Guandu, New Taipei, Taiwan. She was known to the Chinese as 艾偉德 (Ài Wěi Dé- a Chinese approximation to 'Aylward' – meaning 'Virtuous One').

A London secondary school, formerly known as "Weir Hall and Huxley", was renamed the Gladys Aylward School shortly after her death.

There is a blue commemorative plaque on the house where Gladys lived near the school in Cheddington Road, London N18.

Numerous books, short stories and films have been developed about the life and work of Gladys Aylward (listed below).


  1. ^ Crowther, Bosley (14 December 1958). "The Inn of the Sixth Happiness". New York Times. Retrieved 24 May 2015.
  2. ^[self-published source]
  3. ^ Latham, pp4-6
  5. ^ "Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society". Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. 44: 118. 2006.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Burgess, Alan. Gladys Aylward, The Little Woman.
  8. ^ IDEA - Magazine of the Evangelical Alliance Jan/Feb 2018 p.18 with photo
  9. ^ "Heroes of History: Gladys Aylward".
  10. ^ Wellman 1998, p. 197
  11. ^ Cast Script. British Film Institute.
  12. ^ Wellman 1998, p. 198
  13. ^ Wellman 1998, p. 201


  • Hero Tales by Dave & Neta Jackson
  • These Are My People by Mildred T. Howard

Further sources[edit]




  • The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958) – feature film
  • Gladys Aylward, the Small Woman with a Great God (2008) – documentary
  • Torchlighters: The Gladys Aylward Story (2008) – animated DVD for children ages 8–12

External links[edit]