PUBLISHED: 18:39 EST, 21 April 2012 | UPDATED: 18:40 EST, 21 April 2012
Using her Sina Weibo account, which is the Chinese version of Twitter, Lee posted pictures of a particularly ferocious beating she received at the hands of Yang in September last year and then promptly filed for divorce.
With almost 70,000 followers to her micro-blogging account, Lee’s shared first-hand experiences of the English language-school entrepreneur’s attacks have split the secretive nation as some support her attempts to highlight her treatment while others disapprove.
The case, which broke into the public consciousness at the end of last year has captivated China, where domestic violence exists behind shadows and closed doors.
It is estimated that at least one in four women has experienced beatings at the hands of their husband in China and abuse thrives in a culture of secrecy that holds family conflicts private.
With no official anti-domestic violence laws in the rapidly-developing state, it is especially hard for women to go public as they are still traditionally expected to be subservient to their spouse.
The case of Lee 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.
And more to the point, Yang is the multi-millionaire owner of ‘Crazy English’, a controversial English language course which he operated with his estranged wife and who is a very prominent success story of modern China.
‘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?’ said 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.’
Picking up her belongings after a particularly cruel beating in September, Lee scooped up her wailing child, grabbed their passports and a wad of cash, and walked out of the Beijing apartment she shared with Yang.
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.
They met on the first day of her first trip to China in 1999 when Lee was a teacher in Miami visiting the country to learn about bilingual education.
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.
Arranging her divorce documents Kim Lee (left) is claiming half of estranged husband Li Yang’s (right) multi-million dollar English language school ‘Crazy English’
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, explained Lee.
She blamed herself.
‘Just drop it, just don’t make him angry,’ said Lee.
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 he viciously kicked her in the stomach after an argument about work.
Lee did not tell her family or friends about the beating. She thought it was her fault for provoking him, and he seemed sorry.
She mentioned it to 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.
Communism brought new laws that gave women the right to work alongside men, and decades of economic growth have created dramatic shifts in Chinese society. But inequities persist, particularly in rural areas.
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.
However, studies report a rate in Chinese rural areas of up to 65 percent.
‘What it shows is the tip of the iceberg,’ says Feng, the advocate against domestic violence. ‘How big the iceberg really is, we actually don’t know.’
Regardless of her husbands explanations Lee started to push back. She told her husband she wanted a home under her name, a monthly deposit in her account and a life insurance policy for him.
‘You control everything in my life,’ she complained.
‘Shut up,’ he warned.
‘I will not shut up,’ she responded.
He stood up. ‘I said, ‘shut up.’‘
She got to her feet also. ‘I will NOT shut up,’ she said.
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, took a deep breath 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. She avoided eye contact with them.
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 — through the Internet.
First, she posted a profile 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 account. ‘It will damage many things. I love you!’
Instead, the photos went viral. And 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.
After the scandal with his wife erupted last year, Li acknowledged in an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CCTV that his relationship with his parents was bereft of emotional or physical intimacy.
He said he still suffers from mild depression.
‘Just holding my father’s hand or giving him a hug, I would get goose bumps,’ Li said. ‘Something was broken in the middle. … I grew up in an environment that was lacking. You will find that my ability to love is poor. It is a problem.’
He said on TV that he had married Lee to research American child-raising techniques, turning the relationship into a cross-cultural experiment. He painted her as the 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 occasionally 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.’
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???’
‘No, Li Yang, this is your twisted, xenophobic mind and way of thinking,’ responded Lee, who is seeking at least half his assets. ‘Our war is not between nations, but between character.’
Now the case is before the courts, and she can do little but 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.
In the meantime, she has changed the locks on her apartment. Last week, her husband 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.’