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Ai-weh-deh led her young Chinese charges to safety

Posted in Historical articles, History, Missionaries, Religion, War on Wednesday, 22 January 2014

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This edited article about Gladys Aylward first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 522 published on 15 January 1972.

Aylward the missionary, picture, image, illustration

Gladys Aylward, a missionary in China, leads over 100 children to safety during the China-Japan war by Andrew Howat

Shortly after sunrise, the band of orphan and refugee children started out on their long march to safety. Singing hymns at the top of their young voices, they left the only real home most of them had known, heading towards the mountains and the walled city of Sian, in North China.

They knew they might not reach Sian alive, but despite this they showed few signs of fear. To many of them the journey was a wonderful adventure. And they all had faith in Ai-weh-deh, the small Englishwoman who was their friend and leader.

Ai-weh-deh would guide them and protect them from the Japanese soldiers who were devastating the nearby towns and villages. In Chinese, her name meant “The Virtuous One,” and the mission children knew her only as this. They watched her lovingly as she marched along with them, making sure that the stragglers and younger ones weren’t left behind, and keeping the more daring boys in check with strong blasts on her whistle.

Soon they had left Yangcheng behind them. The mission there – the beautifully-named Inn of the Sixth Happiness – was a bomb-shattered ruin. The children would never sleep in it again, and Ai-weh-deh had somehow to provide for a hundred boisterous youngsters, aged between four and fifteen, who had no money, and nothing to eat but a basketful of millet.

On the first of the twelve nights of their march, they sheltered in a Buddhist temple which was presided over by a single priest. The millet was quickly eaten and, as the children fell contentedly asleep, Ai-weh-deh wondered who would befriend them next. She couldn’t help wondering, too, whether she would ever see England and her home in London again.

Eleven years previously, in 1930, Ai-weh-deh had been Gladys Aylward, a young London parlourmaid who dreamed of becoming a missionary in China, and who had saved every penny of her meagre wages to pay her fare out there.

It took her months of hard work to raise enough money, and when she eventually arrived in the Chinese town of Yangcheng, she was practically penniless. Not only that. She spoke no Chinese, and she was greeted by the people she hoped to help with great hostility. The children called her a “foreign devil,” laughing when their mothers jeered at her, and throwing dried mud after her in the street.

But neither mud nor insults could dissuade Gladys Aylward from her purpose. She cared little for ordinary life, and felt she owed it to God to live selflessly. She became friendly with another missionary in Yangcheng, a frail Scottish woman called Jannie Lawson, who had spent more than fifty years teaching the Gospel in the rough, mountainous country north of the Yellow River. Together they decided to turn Mrs. Lawson’s house into an inn. The town was a recognized stopping place for mule caravans, and they could cater for the hardy muleteers, who led their teams all over north China. If the men were well looked after, fed tasty meals and given comfortable beds, they would tell everyone they met that the “foreign devils” were not so fearsome after all. And if they could be induced to listen to sermons while they ate, then the Inn of the Sixth Happiness would really be a place of God.

At first the “guests” were so unwilling that they had literally to be pulled into the inn. Gladys would wait with arms folded in the doorway until a mule team came past. Then she would grab the reins, and haul the animals and the muleteers into the courtyard.

In due course the mules were unpacked, and the men were listening with full stomachs and open mouths to wonderful stories about a man called Jesus Christ who lived many years ago in a country called Palestine, and who cared more for others than for himself.

Gradually, the two “foreign devils” became an accepted part of Yangcheng life. Gladys started to learn Chinese, and after some weeks of dragging in clients, the muleteers and coolies began to visit the inn of their own accord.

Shortly after this success, Gladys was asked by the prison governor to help quell a riot in the local jail. A convict had run amok with an axe, and no one could take it from him. Perhaps the small woman “with the living God inside her” could calm the frenzied man and stop the prisoners fighting?

Gladys did this with a plucky determination which won her the respect of prison officers and convicts alike. She demanded the axe from the man, and told the prisoners, “You should all be ashamed of yourselves.”

It was then that she first became known as Ai-weh-deh, The Virtuous One. She gained permission for the imprisoned criminals to come to Sunday service at the inn, and cared for as many urchins and orphans as she had food and space for.

So the years passed until, in 1936, Gladys Aylward became a naturalized Chinese citizen. She felt more at home in China than she ever had been in London; and when, two years later, the Japanese dropped their first bombs on Yangcheng, she felt as indignant and distressed as only a native could.

The war between the heavily armed Japanese and the far worse-equipped Chinese was a bitter one. Thousands of innocent civilians were bombed, tortured, and killed. On one occasion Ai-weh-deh herself was brutally beaten into unconsciousness by a group of Japanese soldiers.

Always she feared for the safety of the children in her charge, and at times evacuated them from their beloved Inn of the Sixth Happiness. They once lived for six weeks in a remote mountain cave, sleeping on beds made from dried rushes, drinking twig tea, and eating the inevitable boiled millet.

The bravery and devotion of the little missionary soon came to the attention of the Japanese authorities. They regarded her as a threat to their military success, and posted a notice about her on the gates of towns and villages.

The notice was headed, “One hundred dollars reward!” and read: “One hundred dollars reward will be paid by the Japanese army for information leading to the capture, alive, of any one of the three people listed below.” The third name on the list – after those of a mandarin and a loyal Nationalist businessman – was “the small Woman, known as Ai-weh-deh.”

It was obvious now that Gladys Aylward and her band of war orphans would have to flee the district. They thought they could find sanctuary in Sian, across the mountains and over the Yellow River, and so the little pilgrimage set out on its march of hope.

After the first night in the temple, the going got steadily worse. They slept in the open for the next few nights, shivering with cold and trying to shelter from the biting wind behind rocks. At the end of a week they were tired, dirty, footsore, bleeding, and suffering cruelly from hunger and thirst.

Still they continued onwards, begging what nourishment they could from villages along the way. A platoon of Nationalist troops befriended them one evening, allowed them to sleep at their camp, and gave them the sort of food they had been starved of for years.

Travelling on foot, by boat across a river, and then by train, the refugees eventually reached Sian. They had been marching for twelve punishing days, and the final pain came when they were denied entry to Sian and had to take yet another train to the ancient city of Fufeng, where they were housed in a temple orphanage.

All this happened in 1941. Nine years later, Gladys Aylward said goodbye to China and sailed home to England.

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