All her life Englishwoman Gladys Aylward knew that China was the place where she belonged. Not qualified to be sent there as a missionary, Gladys works as a domestic to earn the money to send herself to a poor, remote village. There she eventually lives a full and happy life: running the inn, acting as "foot inspector", advising the local Mandarin. and even winning the heart of mixed-race Captain Lin Nan. But Gladys discovers her real destiny when the country is invaded by Japan and the Chinese children need her to save their lives.
In the 1930s, working-class Englishwoman Gladys Aylward leaves Liverpool and arrives in London, hoping to join the China Missionary Society and be sent to China. But she's rejected because she's had only ordinary schooling and lacks qualification to the position. She works hard as a maid and uses all of her earnings to buy a train ticket to Tientsin. Then she travels by mule to the remote province of Wangcheng, where she works with the Englishwoman Jeannie Lawson and the Chinese cook Yang in the Inn of the Sixth Happiness. When Ms. Lawson has an accident and dies, Gladys has no money to run the establishment and accepts the position of "foot inspector" offered by the Mandarin Hsien Chang. She is assigned to visit the countryside to promote and enforce the government's law against foot-binding Chinese girls. She is successful, changes her nationality to Chinese and her name to Jen-ai (meaning "the one who loves people"), which surprises the skeptical bi-racial Captain Lin Nan. When the Japanese invade Wangcheng, Jen-ai travels through the mountains with 100 children to save them from death.
In pre-WWII Britain. Gladys Aylward, who has worked as a domestic for the better part of her adult life, knows that she belongs in China, despite not knowing the language or anything of life there. She wants to work as a missionary, but is denied because of her inexperience. She even plans to save enough money on her own to go there. Instead, her current employer, Sir Francis Jamison, connects her with a friend of his, the elderly Mrs. Jeannie Lawson, a missionary in China who could use some help. When Gladys arrives in the remote northern Chinese town of Yang Cheng where Mrs. Lawson lives, Mrs. Lawson tells her of her plan: to open an inn, which she ultimately calls the Inn of the Sixth Happiness, which will provide refuge for those traveling by mule train. In this way, they can spread the word of the Lord more effectively. Soon after they open the inn, Mrs. Lawson dies in an accident. With no money, no support to remain in China, and still not enough language skills to make it on her own, Gladys must find a way to stay. That help comes in the form of the Mandarin of Yang Cheng, who employs her initially as the foot inspector, a job which entails monitoring the new government rule that young women and female children must not have their feet bound (the Mandarin failing to tell her the dangers of the job in bucking Chinese historical practice). In her travels, Gladys becomes renowned in the area as a humanitarian and is given the name "the one who loves". Despite potential harm to herself and fear for her personal safety, Gladys often places herself in situations where she feels she can provide some good, such as in negotiating with incarcerated men who have started a prison riot, and with marauding bandits. Through it all, she begins a friendship and ultimate romance with Colonel Lin Nan, a half Chinese/half Caucasian Chinese military officer who chose to live in China since he knew he would always be considered second-class in the western world. They become friends and more despite their differences, especially his military role versus her pacifist attitude. Those differences are tested with his message to the people of the probable Japanese invasion and what would ultimately become the Sino-Japanese War, when her mission becomes to save the masses of orphaned children.
Based on the true-life exploits of Gladys Aylward, who set off to China to work as a missionary and teacher. She meets resistance at the China Missionary Society and finds herself working as a maid for Sir Francis Jamison to raise the money for her passage. When he sees her making use of his library of books on China, he gives her a reference and an introduction to one of his former colleagues, missionary Jeannie Lawson. Gladys sets off overland by train across Europe and the Soviet Union, then by mule overland to Lawson's mission which the old woman hopes to turn into an inn. She slowly adapts to life at the Mission but when Lawson dies after a fall, Gladys finds herself in charge. Over time she gains the confidence of the local Mandarin and the common people and eventually becomes a Chinese citizen. When the Japanese invade China, she sets off to escort 100 orphaned children to safety.
- The Inn of the Sixth Happiness is a film based on the novel The Small Woman, written by Alan Burges, itself on the life of Gladys Aylward. The film starts in London, in the 30's. Gladys (Ingrid Bergman) is a young British second maid who dreams of going to China as a Christian missionary. Unfortunately, she is told that she can't be sent there due to her lack of education. A little, discouraged, but not ready to give up, she decides to go by herself. In a travel agency, she asks information for the train ticket. She's going to start a new job as a housekeeper at Sir Francis Jamison's (Ronald Squire) place, so she decides to pay her plane ticket with the money she'll rise, giving a little amount to the agency each week until the ticket is completely paid. Thanks to Sir Francis Jamison, who has some connections in China, Gladys has a place to stay in this foreign country: at Jeannie Lawson's (Athene Seyler) inn in Yang Cheng. Jeannie is a strong old woman full of life. She lives in an inn, that hasn't been opened for a while, with her cook, Yang (Peter Chong). She has decided to reopen the inn with the help of Gladys and Yang. This is a success and the new Inn is named: The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. After a bad accident, Jeannie dies, leaving Gladys and Yang alone to handle the inn. The mandarin of Yang Cheng (Robert Donat) is desperately in need of a foot inspector to make sure that the traditional practice of foot binding is stopped in the regions he governs. Gladys is the one chosen. It's a success. She then helps the illiterate people to read, adopts many orphans, stops a fight in a jail, makes several good actions and many friends. She is loved by everybody and is re-named Jen-Ai (The Woman who Loves the People) by the locals. Meanwhile, she meets Captain Lin Nan (Curt Jürgens) and they fell in love with each other. This one encourages her to leave the country due to an imminent Japanese's invasion. She refuses because she belongs to China. When the war between Japan and China begins, it's a catastrophe and the village is completely destroyed. The population has to evacuate the town. Now, having a hundred children to take care of, Gladys leaves the village with them to take them to a more secure place. This will be a long and hard expedition. The Inn of the Sixth Happiness was nominated for Best Director Oscar (but didn't win). It won a Golden Globes for Best Film Promoting International Understanding and was nominated for Best Motion Picture Actress - Drama (Ingrid Bergman) and Best Motion Picture Actor - Drama (Robert Donat). Ingrid Bergman and Kurt Jürgens were also both nominated for a BAFTA Award (Best Foreign Actor and Best Foreign Actress). Mark Robson received a DGA Award nomination for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures. Finally, both Ingrid Bergman and Robert Donat won a Best Actress and Best Actor National Board of Review, USA Award. The film was the second most popular film at the British Box Office in 1959. ---Written by Robert D Knapp