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Natalie Thomas

Abused by Chinese Husband for Years, American Woman Found Support Online

Kim Lee posted this picture of herself, apparently after filing a police complaint against her husband. (Via Sina Weibo)

This article also appears in The Atlantic, a Tea Leaf Nation partner site.

To many outside China, it might have seemed like another straightforward heroine-and-villain celebrity divorce story. He is the founder of a hugely popular English learning program known as Crazy English, and is a household name in China. She was his American wife. But the breakdown of Kim Lee’s marriage to her husband Li Yang, which culminated in a Beijing court granting a divorce for reasons of abuse on February 2, has caused many Chinese to reexamine the issue of domestic violence, as well as the roles of men and women in marriage.

Kim Lee was beaten by her husband for years, and repeatedly denied assistance from the authorities and family friends, before she finally took to the Internet with her cries for help. She first posted photos of her bruised knees and swollen head on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter-like microblogging service, in September, 2011.

Shortly after publishing the photos, Lee posted a graphic account of one of their altercations in English: “You knocked me to the floor. You sat on my back. You choked my neck with both hands and slammed my head into the floor. When I pried your hands from my neck you grabbed my hair and slammed my head into the floor ten more times!”

The initial reactions of many who read the post was shock, with users denouncing Li and urging Lee to go to the police. Weibo user @X__小妖__X commented, “The heavens should split this freak Li Yang in half with lightning!! Kim, use the weapon of the law to protect yourself!!” Another user, @哈佛妈妈微博, posted, “As a woman I can’t bear things like this, I know I can’t help you personally, but I know together all the women in China can help. Fellow women re-tweet this; we won’t bear this kind of insanity!”

Shortly after Lee began posting online, Li Yang also went public, stating: “I hit her sometimes, but I never thought she would make it public, since it’s not Chinese tradition to expose family conflicts to outsiders.” While these remarks could be interpreted as a calculated move to create a distance between Lee and her Chinese sympathizers, it also reveals the unspoken nature of domestic violence in the country.

For many in China, especially in rural areas, physical violence in the home is an accepted part of a marital relationship. Lee’s appeals to her sister-in-law for help were met with the suggestion that she should stop provoking her husband. In a separate case, Tea Leaf Nation contributor Thomas Stevenson wrote about how a woman he knew who experienced harassment was told by police, “He obviously cares about you and wants to be with you… you should go back to him.” In Sichuan, a woman named Li Yan was driven to murder her husband after years of abuse and having her appeals to the local women’s association go unheeded. In an interview with The Guardian, Li’s brother Tan stated that “domestic violence is considered to be an issue within the family, and other families have more or less similar situations, so they did not take any action.”

Statistics also show the extent to which domestic violence is a problem in China. A study carried out by the All China Women’s Federation estimated that abuse occurs in more than one third of Chinese households, and women comprise 85% of the victims. More worrying is that just 5% of the women who reported violence in the survey stated that their marriages were unhappy as a result.

By the time Lee left the courtroom, almost a year and a half after her first posts, her case had received more than three million comments on Sina Weibo alone. While most of those posting supported Lee, there was a sense from some that standing up to Li was an American, not a Chinese act. One user, responding to an article about the case published in the Hong Kong media outlet Phoenix, commented, “American women are strong, Chinese men aren’t up to marrying them, they certainly can’t afford to offend them.” Another user remarked, “Li Yang is admittedly wrong!! But if you look at the smile on this old foreign woman’s face…all this money coming to her…it makes you want to throw up. No wonder Li Yang carried out domestic violence.”

Kim Lee won an important victory in court, and helped stand up for herself as well as countless other victims of abuse. Views on domestic violence remain varied in China, but this public divorce has helped bring what was once a very private matter a bit further into the light.

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Natalie Thomas

Natalie Thomas is a Chinese studies graduate from the UK currently working as a multimedia producer in Beijing. When not out in the field filming, she is on weibo watching events unfold in China's online sphere.
  • BillJ

    Thanks for this. In addition to being a great story itself, it is a near perfect illustration of why Tea Leaf Nation’s coverage is seen as invaluable insight among English speakers, but “overly focused on human rights and other Western issues” by many Chinese commenters. Perhaps TLN could explore some of the mirror themes that must exist in the Chinese blogosphere: those that focus on the seeming inabilities of Western democracies to make difficult national financial decisions, or our casual certainty that we have rights to kill people in foreign countries to help them become more like us.

    • Amit.K

      TLN’s tagline is “Making sense of China through social media” not
      “Making sense of Western Democracies through Chinese social media”. You
      seem to be thinking that TLN is saying that Western Democracies are
      perfect and don’t have any of these problems but they’re not; that topic
      doesn’t have much to with their site at all and they express no
      opinions on that. Your comment seems to be saying: “yeah, yeah, yeah the
      chinese do this and that, so what? but what about us westerners and our
      government’s inabilities, we’re no better and do fucked up things as
      well”. If I’ve accidentally made a straw-man here, I’m sorry but this is
      what your post seems to be stating to me. If you’d like to read on western democracies and their inability to make tough national financial decisions there are plenty of other places for that.

  • http://brewerlawyergroup.com/ Frankie Leung

    Domestic violence is not unique in China. She could have suffered the same fate in San Franscisco. If it happened in SF, would it be published?

    • Amit.K

      If the wife of a millionaire (I assume he is) faced domestic violence in SF and was “repeatedly denied assistance by the authorities” who then went to twitter and blogged about it and eventually won the case….. yes it would be published in the papers. This article never claims domestic violence is unique to China. What it does talk about is the culture that is in place that basically decides to look the other way and let things like this slide. Heck, this used to be rampant in America too, and probably still is in some places but we have changed and tried to make it better. We have case law now such as the Battered Woman’s Syndrome defense that can be used in court to help women such as the second woman (Li Yan) mentioned in the article. That women was just recently sentenced to execution. Here is a link from an article that mentioned it yesterday: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chai-ling/li-yan-china_b_2592075.html Here, in the states this woman would’ve actually had a chance in court.

  • JD

    Any form of violence is unacceptable, esp. domestic violence against a member of the weaker sex (I refer here to women), irrespective of their position in a relationship, married or otherwise. That why there are laws in place that expressly prohibit such behaviour. The fact that it occurred in China is immaterial. Unfortunately, such behaivour still persists in contemporary socities. Such articles as this raise awareness that such draconian behaviour is totally without merit and has no place in any relationship.

  • Dick Leigh

    Li Yang is a creep. I was watching a talk show where he was a guest, along with his wife. He denied all of Kim’s accusations, and then questioned her parenting skills. When other people on show confronted him with proof of what he did, he tried to chalk it up to “differences between foreigners and us Chinese”. Thankfully the host would have none of his crap, and started berating him… the whole time he simply smiled and said “thank you”.