There is a lovely movie, staring Ingrid Bergman, called “The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.” Made in 1958 it celebrates the remarkable life of a petite woman, born in 1902 in Edwardian England, called Gladys Aylward. It’s a charming film but on recently reading a biography of Miss Aylward I realised that the Hollywood make-over does not do justice to, and sometimes distorts, the real story of this brave and determined Christian missionary.
For one thing, the casting of a tall Swede is entirely at variance with the small woman from Edmonton who spoke with a broad cockney accent. But the movie also takes any number of liberties with the story itself. Once she tells them of her plans to go to China we entirely lose the tensions that erupt between Gladys Aylward and her family and the film then invents an effortless introduction between a Gladys’ employer and an old friend in China. Perhaps most tellingly of all, in addition to changes made to any number of characters and places the movie revolves around the Inn of the Sixth Happiness while the actual setting was the Inn of Eight Happinesses – taking its name from a Chinese numeral thought to be auspicious.
When the film first appeared Gladys Aylward was upset by the portrayal of Colonel Linnan – a brave Chinese soldier who was wrongly presented as half European – and distressed by an invented Hollywood love scene and the suggestion that she had left her work with her orphans to be happily reunited with the Colonel. For a woman who had decided early on to give her entire life to God, and who had never even kissed a man, she believed her reputation to have been sullied. Her work with orphans also continued until 1970, when she died, having by then founded the Gladys Aylward orphanage in Taiwan.
The real story of Gladys Aylward is one which deserves to be told with all its hard edges and without taking liberties with its powerful narrative.
Here is a working class parlour maid who dreams of becoming an actress but instead reads an article about China and about the millions of Chinese people who had never heard about Christianity. Having felt God’s call to go to China Gladys is rebuffed by her family, friends and church. The missionary society told her that her “qualifications were too slight, my education too limited, and the language far too difficult to learn.”
Meanwhile, she goes to work in a house where two old retired missionaries live and at last she receives some encouragement. They tell her to “keep on watching and praying.” She does, and begins saving to pay the £47-10p single train fare from London to Tientsin in China. To go by ship would have cost twice as much.
Small unexpected things now began to happen to Gladys.
Her savings multiplied, giving her the fare in months instead of the anticipated three years. In 1932, completely alone, she began a perilous journey across Russia and Siberia, into war zones occupied by the Japanese. Near the Manchurian border she was made to leave the train and nearly froze to death and she admitted that “for the first time real doubts came to mind.” She felt God telling her not to be afraid and that He was with her.
She was forced to walk back along the railway track to a junction and, later, some Russians tried to abduct her. She also saw fifty people, many of them girls, in chains being taken to Siberia to Stalin’s camps – “from that moment I hated Communism with all my being:” – hated Communism but loved the people who lived in the lands in which the ideology came to dominate.
After further tribulations Gladys Aylward eventually made it to Tientsin where she went to work with a Scot, Jeannie Lawson, who was trying to turn a dilapidated building into an inn where muleteers would stay overnight and where, with good food and hospitality, they could hear stories from the Bible as they ate. This was how Gladys Aylward came to quickly become fluent in the Chinese language.
After Lawson’s death she continued with the inn but she was also asked by the Government’s senior regional official, the Mandarin, to work with him. He gave her the task of helping him to outlaw the traditional foot-binding of Chinese girls.
Men thought tiny feet were attractive but women’s foot-binding often led to deformities and crippling disabilities. Gladys Aylward helped the Mandarin to end the practice in their province and as she travelled from village to village she evangelised the people she met. An encounter on the side of a road also led her to start rescuing children who were being abandoned or sold. To save the life of one little girl she gave all the money she had: “So Ninepence came into my life and helped to fill the aching void.”
A few months later Ninepence brought in a little boy from the street and the orphans multiplied.
Later, Gladys Aylward became involved in prison reform – and her biography records stories of extraordinary conversions – from hardened criminals to a prison governor, a rebel leader, and even the Mandarin himself. Her encounter with a remote monastery of Buddhist lamas – who told her that they had been waiting for her – is particularly touching.
In 1936 she was given Chinese citizenship and became officially known as A-weh-deh – meaning “virtuous one.” Two years later the Japanese invaded and they put a price on her head. She was wounded in the fighting but led over 100 orphans on a perilous journey over the mountains to safety. Suffering a complete collapse of her health she was diagnosed with relapsing fever, typhus, pneumonia, malnutrition and utter exhaustion. For over a month she was barely conscious.
She would later write that “My heart is full of praise that one so insignificant, uneducated and ordinary in every way could be used to His glory and for the blessing of His people in poor persecuted China.”
That Christianity has become so influential in today’s China is in no small measure a result of the powerful witness and dedicated work of men and women like Gladys Aylward. But her story also underlines the truth of the Psalmist’s prediction that “the stone which the builder has rejected has become the corner stone.”