Beijing. Her head was ringing from the blows. Once, twice, three times, her husband slammed her face into the floor.
Kim Lee tried to twist her tall but skinny frame out from under his 91-kilogram body. He kept on pounding. Eight, nine, 10 times — she thought she might black out.
Then, close to the floor, she glimpsed the neon pink-painted toenails of her 3-year-old daughter, Lydia. “Stop!” the child cried. “What are you doing? Stop, Daddy, stop!” She jumped on her father and scratched his arm.
“Damn it!” he yelled. He loosened his grip on his wife, and she crawled away. It wasn’t the first time that Li Yang, a Chinese celebrity entrepreneur, had struck her. But for his American wife, it was going to be the last.
She scooped up her wailing child, grabbed their passports and a wad of cash and walked out of their Beijing apartment. In doing so, she opened the door to a torrent of anguish about domestic violence in her adopted country, inadvertently becoming a folk hero for China’s battered women.
Domestic violence everywhere lives in the shadows, and in China it thrives in a secrecy instilled by tradition that holds family conflicts to be private. It is also hard to go public in a country where many still consider women subservient to their husbands, and there is no specific national law against domestic violence.
At least one in four women in China is estimated to have been a victim of domestic violence, surveys show, with the rate in rural areas as high as two out of every three. The violence takes many forms, from physical and sexual assault to emotional abuse or economic deprivation.
Lee’s case has spawned tens of thousands of posts on Chinese Twitter-like sites, along with protests and talk show debates. It is especially explosive because she is a foreigner at a time when China is sensitive about how it is understood and treated by the world.
“A lot of people said, ‘Oh, is it because Kim is an American and so she’s too strong-willed, or her personality is too strong?’… Some others have asked whether she is making a big fuss over a small issue,” says Feng Yuan, founder and chair of the Anti-Domestic Violence Network in Beijing. “This shows that in terms of the public perception of domestic violence, we still have a long way to go.”
The story of Li Yang and Kim Lee is told in photographs, letters, text messages, police documents and hospital records, as well as interviews with her in Beijing. Li refused requests for interviews, but in past interviews on TV and on his microblog, he has confessed to beating his wife.
They met on the first day of her first trip to China in 1999. Then a teacher in Miami, she was visiting a Chinese school to learn about bilingual education.
He was there to speak about his popular program, “Crazy English,” a radical approach to learning the language that involved hand gestures and slogans such as “Conquer English to Make China Stronger!” They married in a Las Vegas chapel in 2005, a few years after their first daughter Lily was born. But with Li away at workshops much of the time, the relationship grew strained.
One day, during an argument over money, he slapped her hard, she says. Another time, arguing about work, he pushed her in front of their colleagues.
In February 2006, while Lee was seven months pregnant with their second child, her husband promised to accompany her to the hospital but did not show up.
Lee went home and deleted four chapters of a textbook she had written for him. When he called, she told him, “I want you to understand what it feels like when you count on someone to do something and they don’t.”
He hung up. The next day, while she was baking cupcakes with their daughter, he flew into the kitchen and knocked a hot pan out of her hand. He grabbed her by the hair, threw her on the floor and choked her.
He managed to land a few kicks on her stomach, but she turned on her side to protect the unborn child. Despite bruises on her legs and body, a sonogram showed the baby was all right. Li said later he “could not tolerate” threats to his work.
Lee did not tell her family or friends about the beating. She did tell her sister-in-law, who dismissed her concerns, saying: “It’s nothing. All men are like that.”
The expectation that all men are violent — or at least have the right to be violent — is common in parts of China.
As with many countries, men historically ruled the family, with authority over women and girls. Women were supposed to obey their fathers when young, their husbands when married and their sons when widowed, according to advice attributed to the ancient sage Confucius. Those who broke family laws could be beaten, with no questions asked.
There is no official data on domestic violence in China, and underreporting is common. However, a recent nationwide survey by the All-China Women’s Federation found that 25 percent of women reported domestic violence from their spouses, almost the same as in the United States. Smaller studies report a rate in Chinese rural areas of up to 65 percent.
“What it shows is the tip of the iceberg,” Feng says. “How big the iceberg really is, we don’t know.”
Wei Tingting is one of about 10 activists who staged a protest over Lee’s plight on Valentine’s Day on a busy street in Beijing. She and two other women wore bridal gowns splashed with fake blood and makeup that looked like bruises on their faces.
Wei, who grew up in the Chinese countryside in Guangxi province, often saw her father beating her mother. Her grandfather hit her grandmother, too.
“The neighbors around us were doing the same. Everyone took it to be a very normal thing. You beat a woman because the woman is at fault,” the 23-year-old says. “Some women even think that it is their fault; that’s why they are beaten.”
By 2009, Lee was plotting her escape. But how? She worked for her husband’s company, with no independent income and no bank account. She lived in an apartment under her sister-in-law’s name and relied on cash Li brought home every month.
Then came the beating that finally drove her out. When he let go, she grabbed Lydia and walked to the police station. She hesitated at the door, then thought of her daughter and walked in.
The police told her they could do nothing unless her husband came also. They brought her to a hospital, where male staffers examined her, placed stickers on her body and photographed the bruises on her head, knees, elbows and back.
That night, Li sent her a message that he had hit her only 10 times, and that a carpet under her had softened the blows. “I was not that cruel,” he wrote.
He refused to go to the police station. So she got his attention the best way she knew how — via the Internet. First, she posted a shot of the bump on her forehead on her Chinese microblog. The next night, it was a photo of the bruises on her knees. And then, a frontal shot of the forehead and another of a bleeding ear.
It worked. “Crazy English” is a household name, and Li had a lot to lose from negative publicity among the students who fork out thousands of yuan to hear him.
“Kim, could you cancel that weibo,” Li said in a text message, referring to the microblog. “It will damage many things. I love you!”
Instead, the photos went viral. Lee went from having about two dozen followers on her microblog to more than 20,000 in a few days, and three times as many now.
Her husband sought to portray the dispute, and the marriage, as a clash between East and West. He said on TV that he had married Lee to research American child-raising techniques, turning the relationship into an experiment.
He painted her as an American woman who thinks family should come before career and country, who fails to see that family business in China is private and that a Chinese man hitting his wife should be forgiven.
“I still think that things that happen at home, well, a family’s shame should not be aired publicly,” Li said on a talk show. “I thought it could cause huge damage to me and my career. So I asked her to remove these photos. She refused.”
Culture has become part of a heated dialogue about the incident. Men have said that while violence is wrong, it comes from the pressure Chinese husbands face to excel in their careers and provide for their families. Others have lamented that it took a foreigner’s indignance to cast light on what is an open secret in China.
In October, she filed divorce papers. He replied with a text message: “You think you Americans are smarter??? Let’s see!!! Americans want to win a war in China???”
The case is before the courts, and she can only wait. Li has claimed in divorce proceedings that he is not guilty of domestic violence because he did not beat her frequently over many years.
Last week, he sent her an angry text message: “In America you should be killed by your husband with gun. This is real American way. You’re so lucky to be in China!” Later, he wrote, more succinctly, “Kill you!”
Yet when asked if she still loves him, she says she is not sure.
“I hate what he has done to me and our family … but I cannot say that I hate him,” she says. “Maybe the better question is not do you love him, but does love mean accepting and forgiving someone’s violence?
“For me, it does not.”