It is rather unusual for a book launch to take place in a small Australian country town, but The Black Wall is a rather unusual book. It is an autobiography that tells the true story of a young woman’s “decade without liberty,” and of her father’s “reform through labor” life in jail.
The author is Qi Jiazhen, a Chinese women who, along with her Australian husband, run a grocery store in Murtoa in the wheat growing district of the Wimmera, Victoria.
This little township is over 300 km northwest of Melbourne, with a population of over 900 people. The local population is very proud of their celebrity, and many people gathered at the Mechanics Institute Hall to celebrate the launch of the English translation of her book. Paula Clark works in the library administration, and says that it is wonderful to have a person like Helen living in the region:
“She’s also been a wonderful thing for our little town, and she’s helped to educate us in the ways of the world, and it’s good for us to hear experiences of other people, because we don’t get a lot of exposure to people that have grown up in other cultures in the town, so it’s been a really good learning thing for Murtoa. I think Murtoa people have embraced her as well, so it’s been good for Helen, and it’s been really educative for us.”
When she was just 20 years old, Qi Jiazhen was arrested and given a 13 year prison sentence. Her father Qi Zunzhou, aged 50 at the time, was also imprisoned, along with his daughter, for 15 years.
Qi Jiazhen wanted to study at an American University, and her father encouraged her to gain more knowledge overseas in order to serve her country and its people in the future. The prison sentences were for their supposedly “counterrevolutionary activities” in China.
But what does a 20-year-old girl from Chongqing know of politics? And what of her father, a patriot and arguably the most knowledgeable railway man in China who twice refused lucrative overseas contracts, who was punished for reasons which to this day are still not clear.
Father and daughter were (for some time concurrently) interred in the “Number Two Prison of Sichuan Province,” and although only separated by a few walls, they could not have been further apart.
Her father refused to admit to guilt and was punished accordingly. But the young and impressionable Jiazhen, through the slow drip of brainwashing, “accepted reform conscientiously” and became the poster girl for successful rehabilitation.
This mass incarceration of “dissidents” created an underclass of single parent families. So within the greater narrative, there is another story of the mother of five children who, in the absence of her husband, struggled to survive and raise her family.
Jiazhen considers her book as her own child, so the pregnancy of this child started from the moment she was arrested. As Paula Clark said: “I love the metaphor and the way she spoke about giving birth to her unborn son. That was just wonderful.”
This story is testament to those who did not survive; the infuriating Wang Daqin, who slowly went mad; Mu Guangzhen, who waited nearly 20 years to reunite with a forgotten husband in Taiwan; and the kindly Xiong Xingzhen, who was murdered while refusing to bow before the portrait of Mao Zedong.
Speaking for the Murtoa community, Paula says: “We feel very proud that there is a notable person like Helen here living amongst us, and we will be putting Helen’s book in our collection.”
But Jiazhen Qi did not stop there. In March 2008, she used her father’s inheritance to found the “Qi’s Culture Foundation,” which praises and honors authors who promote the progress of China.