Kim Lee (not pictured) had had enough. After struggling in secret with the domestic abuse inflicted upon her by her celebrity husband Li Yang, she went public in 2011, posting graphic pictures of her injuries on a Chinese social network. The American woman dared to do something that few women in China would: going public with what was considered a deeply private matter. Just days ago, she finally won her suit in a divorce case, separating from her husband on the grounds of domestic violence, receiving custody of their three children and getting the titles to numerous properties along with a compensation payment for the pain and suffering she had experienced.
The case of Kim Lee isn’t just that of a single woman who escaped an abusive relationship, though. It highlights a huge issue in China that primarily flies under the radar because everyone is acculturated to refuse to talk about it: domestic violence. Kim Lee’s case became huge news in part because she was American and because her husband and his “Crazy English” instructional program are a household name in China, but also because when the authorities refused to help her, she fought back with the power of social media, sparking a national conversation not just about her abuse, but also about domestic violence in China in general.
This isn’t the only high-profile domestic violence case attracting headlines in China and beyond at the moment. Eyes are also turned to Li Yan, a woman sentenced to death for killing her husband after experiencing months of violence. Despite requesting help and providing photographic evidence of her husband’s crimes, she was left to fend for herself — until the day her husband approached her with an air gun and she fought back. Gallingly, the courts refused lenience in her case even though it was clear there were extenuating circumstances.
Kim Lee’s bold decision to post pictures of herself went against the considerable weight of tradition in China, where domestic violence is considered a matter to be handled at home, not dealt with in public. Her own husband accused her of airing dirty laundry, and while he freely admitted to hitting her, he didn’t seem to think this was a problem, let alone an issue that might merit further attention from the authorities or grounds for a divorce. Women in China felt differently, spreading Lee’s images and stories like wildfire across social media and calling upon each other to rise up, while excoriating Li Yang for his abusive treatment of his wife.
Lee won her case because she was educated and dedicated when it came to pursuing justice, and being American certainly didn’t hurt. But what about Chinese women struggling with domestic violence in their own homes who don’t have access to her resources? Advocates are calling for better laws regarding domestic violence in China, and with one in three to four (depending on which statistics you use) women in China experiencing abuse at the hands of their partners, this is clearly an issue that calls for definitive legislation and education. Particularly in conservative rural areas, where women are more likely to experience abuse and more likely to be told to keep quiet about it.
Kim Lee broke the silence, and her win in court added another chapter to the story. With global eyes on China and Chinese women calling for reform and better treatment, the nation could be on the cusp of a major victory for women’s rights.
Photo credit: ghetto_guera29