Gladys Aylward's Long Road to China

Updated Feb 20, 2023
Gladys Aylward's Long Road to China

"Get off the train!" the Russian conductor shouted in words 30-year-old Gladys Aylward did not understand. But she could tell from his angry face that he wanted her to get up. However, Gladys did not move. She did not know everyone else was getting off the train because there was a fierce war going on up ahead. The train soon would be filled with only loud mouthed, bad-tempered soldiers. It was not a safe place for a woman traveling alone.

The Long Walk Back

When the train reached the next stop, the conductor forced Gladys Aylward to get off. She was the only non-military person left on the train. She now had to walk alone 30 miles back to the nearest city, through the woods in the cold, snowy night. This was only the beginning of her troubles, though. In the many hours to come, she would have almost no food to eat, nearly freeze to death, and barely escape being forced to become a Soviet military machine operator.

Gladys knew God wanted her to go tell the Chinese about Jesus, but why was it so hard for her to get there? Could it be God was getting her ready for even harder times?

Not Good Enough

Gladys Aylward grew up in London, England, in the early 1900s. As a teenager, she read a story about the Chinese that changed her life. She knew she must go tell them about God's love.

Gladys failed missionary training school. The director told her she wasn't smart enough to learn Chinese, and they would not accept her. But Gladys was determined. If the mission board would not send her to China, she would find her own way there.

To save money for her trip, Gladys went back to the only job she knew, being a maid. One day Gladys heard about an elderly missionary woman who was looking for someone to take over her work in China.

China at Last!

When Gladys Aylward finally did arrive in China, she could not find the elderly missionary woman. Gladys was told she had moved to another village, a two-day mule ride into the mountains. So, Gladys hired a mule driver to take her there.

The missionary, 73-year-old Mrs. Jeannie Lawson, was surprised to see Gladys when she arrived at the village. She quickly put her to work repairing the big, old, rundown house that she lived in. The villagers thought the house was haunted. Mrs. Lawson wanted to turn the house into a hotel for the Chinese mule drivers. She would offer two things other hotels did not, dinner time Bible stories and beds without fleas. At first the mule drivers were afraid of the two white women they called "foreign devils." However, once inside, they loved the Bible stories and news of the hotel spread quickly.

One day Mrs. Lawson slipped and fell from a second floor balcony. A few weeks later, she died. After Mrs. Lawson's death, Gladys could not pay the hotel taxes. She was alone, without any money and was the only English-speaking person within a two-day mule ride. She did not know what to do. But guess what? God answered Gladys' prayer in a way she did not expect.

For many years, the feet of Chinese girls were wrapped tightly at birth to keep them from growing big. The Chinese thought small feet were prettier. A new law said that all foot-wrapping must end. The town governor asked Gladys to be his official foot inspector.

At first, Gladys refused. She did not know why anyone would listen to someone they called "foreign devil." However, she also had the governor's okay to tell every villager about Jesus.

Gladys Aylward went to every village taking off foot bandages and telling Bible stories. The job paid enough to cover the hotel taxes and many Chinese became Christians.


Gladys did such a good job as foot inspector that when a riot broke out in the town prison, she was called again. This time the prison governor wanted her to calm the prisoners down. Afraid, Gladys prayed for help and then convinced the prisoners to put down their weapons. Afterwards she visited the prison every day and helped make their living conditions better. From then on, everyone called her Ai-weh-deh, which means "The Virtuous One."

On another day as Gladys walked through the village, she saw an old woman trying to sell a dirty little girl. She could not bear to leave the girl with the woman who did not care about her. Gladys bought the girl for less than two dollars. This little girl was the first of almost 100 unwanted children who came to live with Ai-weh-deh.

Harder Times

For many years, the Japanese had been at war with China. Gladys Aylward thought the village she lived in was so well hidden it would never be attacked. However, one spring morning, Japanese planes filled the sky. They dropped bombs, destroying the village and killing many people. Gladys, who was upstairs leading a prayer group, was knocked out as she fell to the first floor below. When she woke up, she went out to help others who were hurt.

The village was in shambles and dead bodies lay in the streets. Japanese foot soldiers were on their way to kill everyone who was still alive. Gladys, the orphaned children, and the villagers fled, finding safety in caves. As the Japanese continued to close in on them, she and the children walked many days without food but were able to catch the last train to freedom. Gladys became very ill. As soon as the children were taken care of, she fell into a coma. She was hospitalized for two months and almost died.

One Last Visit to England

Gladys decided to go back to England after many years in China. She had aged so much that her parents did not know her at first. The years in China had been hard on her. She often became confused. She thought she was still in China and would speak in Chinese. When she felt well enough she would speak at churches about the need for more missionaries to go to China. All the time Gladys missed China terribly. She knew she could not stay in England. Gladys Aylward was the first missionary to become a Chinese citizen. She went back to China and spent the rest of her life helping the Chinese.

Gladys Aylward became known around the world for the sacrifice she made to help the Chinese learn the way to God. You can see the story of her life in a movie called The Inn of Sixth Happiness.

How Well Did You Read the Story?

Fill in the blanks with the correct answer. Put one character in each space provided.

1. Gladys walked __ __ miles in the cold, snowy night.

2. Gladys worked as a __ __ __ __ to save money for her trip to China.

3. Gladys took care of unwanted __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __.

4. Gladys and the children found safety living in __ __ __ __ __.

5. The village was bombed by the __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __.

6. Chinese girls had their __ __ __ __ bound.

7. Gladys became a __ __ __ __ __ __ __ citizen.

Make It Real!

Questions to make you dig a little deeper and think a little harder.

1. Gladys was determined to be a missionary even though she was told she wasn't good enough. When people question your ability to do something that you sense God may be calling you to do, how do you respond?

2. How did God provide for Gladys during times of need in her life?

3. After Mrs. Lawson died, Gladys asked God what she should do next. How did God answer her prayer?

4. How have you seen God provide for you or your family's needs?

Suggested reading:

Gladys Aylward: Adventure of a Lifetime by Janet & Geoff Benge (Christian Heroes: Then and Now series, Ywam Pub.). Our favorite!

Gladys Aylward by Catherine Swift (Women of Faith series, Bethany House Pub.)

Photo Credit: Getty Images/aphotostory

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