The Small Woman by Alan Burgess is an inspiring and very well-written biography of Gladys Aylward, missionary to China for twenty years. In her mid-twenties she went through a probationary period at the China Inland Mission in London but was rejected on account of her lack of qualifications and the belief that at her age the Chinese language would be extremely difficult to learn. Still, Gladys felt called by God to go China and although bitterly disappointed at first, she wasn’t going to let this stop her.
She was a parlourmaid and didn’t earn much money so she decided upon the cheapest possible mode of transport and took herself to a travel agent to make her first payment towards a ticket. He tried to tell her that although her chosen route via the Trans-Siberian railway was the cheapest option, it wasn’t possible due to a conflict between Russia and China.
“I couldn’t really care about a silly old war,” she had said. “It’s the cheapest way, isn’t it? That’s what I want. Now, if you’ll book me a passage, you can have this three pounds on account, and I’ll pay you as much as I can every week.”
“We do not,” the clerk had replied, choosing his words with the pedantic care of the extremely irritated, “like to deliver our customers-dead!”
She had stared up at him. His acidulousness had no effect whatsoever. She was quite logically feminine about it all. “Oh, they won’t hurt me,” she said. “I’m a woman. They won’t bother about me.”
She set out in 1930 after paying for her ticket in full. She was thirty years old, alone, and with only one contact in China – seventy-three year old Jeannie Lawson, a widow who had stayed on in China after her husband died. Gladys had written to her and Mrs Lawson said that if she could make her way to China, Gladys could stay with her. With no financial resources or official backing, and no knowledge of the Chinese language, she left England, boarded a train at The Hague, and crossed into Siberia ten days later.
Her intention was to take the train all the way across Siberia and then board a steamer for Tientsin in China, but a brief undeclared war between China and Russia over possession of the China Eastern Railway brought her rail trip to an end near the Manchurian border.
Unable to proceed any further, her only option was to walk back along the railway track to the last town, which she did in the bitter cold and dark, camping in the open overnight, wrapped in the fur rug made by her mother out of an old coat, and using her suitcases as a windbreak while she slept. She eventually reached the town of Chita and after some misunderstandings and frightening experiences with officials, who thought that the word ‘missionary’ on her passport implied she worked with ‘machinery’ and so would be a good asset in Russia, she went on her way to Vladivostok. Here a young woman, who was a complete stranger to her, warned her to leave Russia straight away or she would never get out. The woman told her to seek passage on a Japanese ship docked at the harbour and after explaining her situation to the captain, Gladys was given free passage to Japan.
Her experiences in Russia shocked her and left her with a sense that the people were downtrodden and wretched.
‘For her the cold wind which sifted through the streets carrying on its breath the desolation of Siberia epitomised Russia. She felt in her bones the bewilderment and hopelessness of so many of its people. She could not canalise her feelings into a coherent, critical appraisal; she only knew how desperately she wanted to leave this country.’
Gladys did finally arrive in China after a brief stay in Japan, and found her way to Yancheng where Mrs Lawson lived and together they opened an Inn (The Inn of Eight Happinesses) where traders stayed overnight, heard the gospel and then went on their way over the mountains to tell others.
Eight months later Mrs Lawson died and Gladys was placed a precarious position financially. She was saved from possible disaster when the local Mandarin paid her a visit and asked her to be his official ‘foot inspector.’ Gladys was basically given carte blanche in this position; two soldiers accompanied her on her expeditions into the countryside to ensure that the Mandarin’s orders outlawing foot binding were carried out, and she used these times to spread the Gospel, becoming known and beloved by all as she did so.
These were times of great satisfaction for Gladys. She loved China and its people, learnt to speak multiple dialects fluently and fully identified with her adopted country when she became a Chinese citizen in 1936.
‘…Gladys had not merely learnt the language; she had embedded herself in it like a stone in a fruit. The language had grown around her.’
In 1938 war came to China when the Japanese invaded:
‘The policy of the Japanese was plain. For years they had operated their ‘master’ race policies in their northern colony of Korea. The Japanese were aristocrats, the Koreans serfs! No Korean was educated above an elementary level; no Korean ever held an administrative post of any importance; they were reduced to a proletarian and peasant level and kept there. Hitler was putting the same theories into operation on the other side of the world. The same treatment was already accorded those areas of North China in the enemy’s grasp.’
Some of the many highlights of the book are Gladys going into a prison, quaking in her boots, to quell a riot led by a huge man running around with a machete; leading a hundred homeless children on a twelve day march over the mountains to the Yellow River, the colourful descriptions of China and the Chinese culture, and her relationship with the local Mandarin, who she eventually led to Christ.
She became known by the name Ai-weh-deh, the virtuous one, and remained in China until 1947, a witness of the end of a Chinese era that had lasted for forty centuries.
Japan withdrew from China in 1945 but civil war continued to rage between the Nationalists and the Reds. These were heartbreaking years for Gladys; the Communists saw Christians as enemies and maltreated and persecuted them:
‘She saw the faith of her friends and converts outlawed and attacked by every moral and physical means imaginable, by a godless philosophy with its lunatic assertion that “the ends justifies the means.”‘
The Small Woman is a remarkable, inspiring story. I read this book years ago and so did my older children, but I’d forgotten about it until Brandy @Afterthoughts mentioned that she was thinking of using it as a devotional book for one of her children. I decided to read it again to see if it was as good as I remembered. I wasn’t disappointed.
There is so much to be gained from this story, and I especially recommend it for girls around the ages of twelve or thirteen years and up. Our young women are surrounded by a culture that encourages them to push for their rights, to smash through the ‘glass ceiling,’ to be the best they can be, to prove they are just as good as men and are quite capable of doing anything they can do. I don’t have an issue with equality, or capability, but I’ve been reading in Matthew 10, which obviously applies to both male and female:
“The one who finds his life will lose it, and the one who loses his life because of me will find it.”
Gladys Aylward knew she had work to do and that God had called her. She went against everything her culture expected of her, not to gain recognition or to be be able to say, ‘I was the first women ever to do this.’ When the door to missionary work closed in her face she didn’t complain that she was discriminated against but believed that God would make a way when there was no way – because she was willing to lose her life. In fact, in the midst of the upheaval of war and persecution in China, she wrote this to her family:
A word on age suitability
A few situations to be aware of, although I must say that some of them were quite powerful demonstrations of God’s intervention:
Gladys spent some time serving as a ‘Rescue Sister’ on the docks. ‘…she hardly knew how they ‘fell’ or what she was supposed to be rescuing them from…and the drunken sailors under the blotchy yellow street lamps…were just as likely to mistake her for a prostitute and act accordingly.’
Japanese soldiers broke into the mission’s women’s court intent on rape, ‘with struggling screaming women in various stages of undress.’ The soldiers didn’t succeed – I love what happened here!
A Chinese Christian was forced to watch when the Japanese set fire to his house while his wife and children were inside.
There are some good biographies on Gladys Aylward’s life for younger children but I highly recommend this one at some stage.
Out of print but available secondhand.
Linking up with Cloud of Witnesses Reading Challenge and Back to the Classics 2017
17 thoughts on “The Small Woman by Alan Burgess (1957)”
Great review of this book.It sounds very good and very interesting. You noted that this is a reread for you. I find that it pays off to visit noteworthy books that we read when we were younger. that seems to be the case with this book.
Thank you, Brian. I've been doing quite a bit of re-reading in recent years. It's fascinating to recall my original reactions to some of the books & I think I definitely appreciate some books so much more the second time around – the noteworthy books, as you pointed out.
Wow! I've seen the film, which apart from inserting a love story, sounds like it was fairly faithful…though just a brief retelling. Excellent choice.
There actually was a love story, but not the Hollywood version. She loved a Chinese General, a dignified, intellectual man & he wanted to marry her. She never saw the movie & I read somewhere that she was upset about how the film portrayed their relationship. They planned to get married but she wanted to wait until China was at peace again. He went to visit her after she took the children over the mountains and implored her to marry him, but it was too late: '…somewhere in the deep drifts of delirium and fevers of her illness, certainty had been replaced by anxiety.' She felt there was so much work left for her to do. He left and she never saw him again. She was an exceptional woman.
Great review! Gladys really had a fascinating life. Like so many real life stories, the truth is stranger than fiction!
Just bought a copy – thanks for the great review Carol!
So true 🙂
I'm sure you'll enjoy it!!!
This has been on my TBR list for ages. Thanks for the wonderful review. When I was a missionary kid growing up in Taiwan my mother was friends with Gladys. =)
How good is that! The book briefly mentions her time in HongKong & Taiwan. I bet you'd have a few stories to tell, too!
I love Gladys Aylward and have enjoyed this book as well as some of the other bios written. YWAM has a great series of missionary biographies that are very accessible for children. Thanks for this thorough and very inspiring review!
I love her story so much and have read it several times. I don't think I have ever read this book, though. I have read Gladys Aylward, Missionary to China by Sam Wellman and Gladys Aylward by Catherine Swift. There is a good children's book about her called These Are My People by Mildred Howard. Thanks for the reminder of her faith and courage. She probably would not have said she was courageous – but she just took God at His Word and then did what she thought He wanted her to do.
I think we have just about all those YWAM titles! My children really enjoyed them.
We have These are my People – a great one for younger children. She certainly was very 'book worthy.'
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