Gladys Aylward


Missionary to China and the film “THE INN OF SIXTH HAPPINESS”

By Candace Malcomson


Gladys Aylward, a born-again chamber maid in England in the early 1900’s, wanted to be a missionary in China but due to her lack of education and age she was rejected by the Missionary foundation she hoped would send her. Convinced that God had called her to China, Gladys worked every hour she could until she had enough funds to pay for a single ticket on the trans-Siberian train to China.

From the time she left the UK she was faithful in sending letters home to her mother describing in detail the great adventures she faced and these letters recorded God’s faithfulness to her as she lived through perilous times. Gladys’ mother would relay to her friends her daughter’s news week by week and their fascination with the tales was spread abroad. Soon her mother was sharing Gladys’ stories with congregations all over England.  ‘Our Gladys’ became a household name and her adventures so well known that her biography (The Small Woman)was written in her absence and she herself was taken aback when years later she returned to the UK to find she was somewhat of a celebrity. Some years later a major motion picture starring Ingrid Bergman in the role as Gladys, was made and popularized her story further. It was called ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.’

The broad details of this film resemble Gladys Aylward’s story to some extent and features her most famous feat when she marched 100 children over the mountains to safety across the Yellow River during the Japanese invasions. However, in the spirit of the age in which we live and of course in the spirit of movie-making, the film bears some glaring differences to the real life of Gladys Aylward.

The purpose of pointing out these anomalies is not merely to defend the truth of this humble missionary’s life but to demonstrate the pervading atmosphere or spirit of this age versus the Spirit of the living God. As the old adage goes ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’ but more specifically perhaps, it is true to say that the world cannot explain the evidence of the hand of God; the miraculous seems foolish: (1Co 2:14) But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

 Read on to learn what and how the Twentieth Century Fox film turned a life lead by Almighty God in to a mere human heroine.

Gladys’ Journey to China

THE FILM: Gladys is shown making a long, tiring journey to Russia. She confronts a little obstacle on the Russian/Chinese border when the Bolshevik’s misread her passport and mistakes her for a ‘Machinist’ and not a ‘Missionary’. For a brief moment it looks like they will remove her from the train and detain her in Russia but they seem to take her explanation of being a ‘religious person’ as satisfactory and allow her to go on.

REALITY: In fact, Gladys’ journey was halted in Russia where she was made to disembark and in spite of her protests and evidence of a ticket purchased to China, she was told that she would not be allowed to go any further. She was ushered off the train and pushed in to a tiny, icy-cold hotel room which had no electricity and the door closed upon her. She had no idea where she was and no way of communicating with anyone. She sat on the bed too cold to sleep and very hungry – she had nothing to eat. Gladys prayed.

Some time later in the middle of the dark night she heard a very feint knock on the door. It was so feint she could not be sure it was even intended for her to respond. She opened the door and a lady’s voice beckoned her in English to go with her immediately to catch the next boat to Japan or she would never get out of there. The lady led Gladys to the docks and to a boat where the captain admitted her solely on the strength of her British passport. Via a mission station in Japan Gladys then arrived in China also by boat. Gladys never knew how the little lady knew that she was bound for China, or even how she knew where to find her in the dark hotel, but she did learn the power of prayer!

Acts 5:19 But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth…

Her Name

THE FILM: Gladys is called by a Chinese name ‘Ja-nai’ which translated means “one loved by the people” Gladys was indeed loved by the Mountain people as she nursed them and educated them.

REALITY: Her main concern was to teach and lead the people unto Christ. Her goal and desire was not to be loved by the people as much as it was that the people would love God. She lived an upright and righteous life. Undoubtedly there were many who hated her, for the Gospel message she brought, brought an end to Chinese customs which favoured men and gave them the right to beat their wives and bind their daughters’ feet. The spirit of the age we live in though prefers to make Christian leaders admired like hero’s and loved by all but…

1Jn 3:13 Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you.

The people in fact gave her the name ‘Ai-weh-deh’ which means “Righteous one”. Indeed, by her very life she showed forth the life of The Righteous One, Jesus Christ, who was not loved by all the people. We are called to be Christ-like which means that we too will not be loved by all the people.

A River Crossing

THE FILM: After weeks of marching 100 tired and weary children to the Yellow river, they get there to find that there are no boats and no way of getting across the raging river. Her right-hand man comes up with an idea that with rope tied from side to side they could each pull themselves across. This ‘self-help scheme’ works and we see them safely on the other side.

REALITY: Gladys was very ill by the time they got to the Yellow river and the news that Chinese boat crossings had been banned nearly destroyed her. She barely coped as the little ones bombarded her with questions as to how and when they were going to be able to cross the river. Gladys prayed weakly but a few days passed without a sign of help. Then one of the older children came to Gladys and asked her why God would not part the Yellow River as He had the Red Sea for the Israelites. Gladys asked the girl herself to pray and no sooner had she finished praying than a Chinese Officer came over to inspect the group. Totally uncharacteristically, he went against his orders and got his men to bring a few boats out to transport the group across the water, in spite of the great danger - the Japanese were less than a day’s march away.  God used the delay in His answer to grow faith in the heart of that young girl and the children. God turned the heart of this officer to favour His children: Ezra 6:22for the LORD had made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king of Assyria unto them, to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.

The spirit of this age would have us devise whatever self-help schemes we can dream up, but the Spirit of God would have us wait for the perfect plan of God.

“This Old Man…”

THE FILM: Gladys teaches her adopted children to sing nursery rhymes; more specifically as the children march over the mountains and to their final destination after weeks and days of hunger and pain, she gets them to sing “This Old Man, he played one…” which seems to rally their spirits and keep them going. Indeed, the magnificent film score by Sir Malcolm Arnold uses fragments of this nursery rhyme as thematic material throughout the film.

REALITY: Gladys taught her adopted children only Gospel songs and songs that inspired their hearts to trust in Jesus. The children’s favourite song and the one which they were singing as they came in to the village after their arduous journey, was in fact “Trust and Obey, for there’s no other way…”

Pro 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

The spirit of this age would have our children’s mind filled with fables and rhymes of no eternal value. The Spirit of God would have our children’s minds filled with Gospel songs; songs of love, hope and peace in Jesus Christ.


THE FILM: Gladys and a Eurasian Officer fall in love. Colonel Linnan is an upright man but not a believer. One is given the impression that their relationship was life-long, and that the parting during her ‘great march’ was temporary. In the parting scene he tells her he is happy for her to be where she is happy to be, which was with her people.

REALITY: Colonel Linnan was very anxious for Galdys’ safety and he tried to coerce Gladys to move away with him but this would have meant leaving the region and her people and most of all her God-given calling. Gladys also knew that she knew the protection and guidance of God in making this decision but Colonel Linnan was not a believer and he could not understand her reliance upon God. It seemed like stubbornness to him, wanting to stay in the war-torn region. Gladys made a decision which she knew would mean the termination of their relationship and she did not see Colonel Linnan again after the war.

The spirit of this age would have us long for romance with the ‘whosoever’. The Spirit of God would have us wait for God’s perfect partner; an equal yoking.


As well as bringing the gospel of Jesus Christ to the mountainous region of the Shansi province, Gladys Aylward was an invaluable spy for the Chinese on the whereabouts of the Japanese as she noted Japanese camps which she observed on her many mountain trips to remote villages on the back of a mule.

She lived in peril but knew God’s peace. She took great risks but saw God’s great reward. She saw the miraculous not fathomed by lost man.

Let us be sure to instill in the heart of the young believer, truth which makes steel in the inner man; truth which makes a missionary who will not faint in the battle, and whose life is certainly not a Hollywood romance, but whose reward is eternal.

 Recommended Reading: No Mountain Too High by Myrna Grant (trail blazer series)

Christian Focus Publications ISBN 1-85792-594-7

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