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Christianity takes a foothold in China

Christians who made a difference by Rosemary Dawson: Gladys Aylward (1902-70)

The job gave Gladys unlimited opportunities to tell Bible stories while removing foot bandages

‘KNICK knack, paddywhack, give a dog a bone.’ This catchy song is sung by a hundred children as English parlourmaid Gladys Aylward (played by Ingrid Bergman) walks them to safety across mountains of war-torn China in the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.

After becoming a Christian, the real Gladys was inspired by a book about China. She wanted to go to the country and preach the gospel. The China Inland Mission turned her down, but she decided to go anyway.

Hearing that Jeannie Lawson, an elderly missionary, needed someone to help her in China, Gladys applied for the post and was accepted. She just needed to get there.

She bought a one-way train ticket and set off from Liverpool Street Station in London with her passport, her Bible and very little money.

After a dangerous and eventful journey across Russia and northern China on the Trans-Siberian Railway, boat, bus, mule and foot, she finally arrived at her destination to help Jeannie establish a hotel for drivers of trading caravans.

Gladys and Jeannie’s establishment offered things other Chinese hotels of the 1930s did not: beds without fleas and evening Bible stories. The drivers soon came to love their stories about a man called Jesus, and some became Christians.

When Jeannie died after a severe fall, Gladys gladly accepted a mandarin’s appointment of her as an official foot inspector, after the Chinese government put an end to the centuries-old painful custom of foot-binding. The job covered the cost of the hotel taxes, and, more importantly, gave Gladys unlimited opportunities to tell Bible stories while removing foot bandages.

Respect for the woman known by the locals as Ai-weh-deh (‘the virtuous one’) steadily grew.

When Japan attacked in 1938, she was urged to retreat into the mountains. For 12 days Gladys and the war orphans she had adopted walked across the mountains to a government orphanage at Sian, where she collapsed with exhaustion and typhus.

After recovering she continued to preach the gospel and care for people in need until her death in 1970.

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