By GILLIAN WONG, Associated Press
BEIJING (AP) — Her head was ringing from the blows. Once, twice, three times, her husband slammed her face into the living room floor.
Kim Lee tried to twist her tall but skinny frame out from under his 91-kilogram (200-pound) body, scraping her elbows and knees on the carpet. 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 in their relationship 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. And 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 Chinese 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 at some point in her life, surveys show, with the rate in rural areas as high as two out of every three women. 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 postings 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 particularly 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 documented in photographs, letters, text messages, police documents and hospital records seen by The Associated Press, as well as extensive interviews with her in Beijing. Li refused repeated 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, in what Lee has come to see as "yuanfen," or fate.
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!" Li sold more than English lessons — he sold a life philosophy of shedding inhibitions, with a patriotism that resonated with many in today's China.
Li persuaded her to move to China to work for him. Inspired by a Chinese folktale called Journey to the West, he called himself the "Hopeless Master" and Kim his "Monkey Queen," to the delight of colleagues. In private, he wrote to her that "a hopeless master can't survive without his monkey queen."
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. She blamed herself. "Just drop it, just don't make him angry," she thought. 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 for a test. He 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."