Telling it like it is

Looking into the problem of domestic violence through the lens of a Chinese family

Art by Grace Fu (Zhiqian)

Domestic violence is a global issue whose effects are felt across national boundaries irrespective of social-economic, racial, religious, and cultural distinctions. Regardless of who it impacts, the impacts or often heartbreakingly similar — severe damage on the well-being and health of women and children in particular.  Domestic violence is defined as the misuse of power by one individual (mainly the man) to establish fear and control of another individual through violence and other forms of abuse.

Domestic violence leads to submission by fear of sexual, financial,physical, social, and psychological assault.Through  the perspective of the children, domestic violence not only causes physical injury, but also undermines the social, psychological, spiritual and emotional well-being of the victim, the perpetrator and  society as a whole.

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On March 27, 1996, a baby girl is born in a small city in northern China.  Nobody is happy with her birth. As she grows, so does her father’s resentment towards her.

“I used to peer out the door and tiptoe to the front entrance of the house and glance up and down at our street repeatedly” Iris* half laughs, shaking her head. “I was listening for footsteps. When I heard the gate click, I ran away immediately and then sat in front of my small desk without moving.” A child waiting for her father to arrive home.

“In fact, he rarely came home, maybe only once a week, usually on Friday. I can remember every time he went home, he was silent and reticent.”

Her father, tall and square-jawed. Her mother, his mistress.

“He was a perfect gentleman; besides, he had a family.” Iris’ mother would tell her when she was in her teens. Recalling these words now, she finds in them an undeniable, tragic irony.

“My mother said that she cared what my father wanted. When she got pregnant with me, she told my father that I was the son he always dreamed about. She was going to have me, no matter what. My father was 38 years old at that time, a product of traditional patriarchal culture, and he madly wanted a baby boy.”

But then things went wrong. When Iris’ father found out that the baby was a girl outside the delivery room, he felt cheated. He refused to look after the mother of his newborn daughter, and then he left them both for months after she was born. When he came back, the abuse began, and from there, it just escalated into a downward spiral of despair.

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In China, like in most cultures, domestic violence against women is an age-old phenomenon. In the modern day, it is one of China’s most serious social and human rights issues. However, it is a hidden epidemic — a public health crisis dismissed as a private affair that is all too often discounted or covered up.

According to Chinese government statistics released in January 2013, one in four women in China are subjected to domestic violence, including marital rape and beatings. Tens of millions are at risk. The state-run China Daily newspaper reported in 2013, nearly 40 percent of Chinese women who are married or in a relationship have experienced physical or sexual violence.

Chinese feminists fought for decades to get the government to take action against domestic violence, and a string of brutal cases galvanized efforts in recent years. In 2011, Kim Lee, the American wife of a Chinese celebrity Li Yang, the creator of a popular English learning technique called “Crazy English”, went public on social media with photos of her battered face and her failed efforts to seek help from police . The news immediately scandalised China, drawing headlines and thousands of online comments. People condemned Li Yang and demanded him to apologise for his violence. Li stayed silent for days, but later he admitted to ‘domestic violence’ against his wife and his kids that ‘caused them serious physical and mental damage.’ But in an interview with China Daily, Li sounded not at all sorry for his actions, saying the “problem involves character and cultural differences, which are difficult to solve through counseling and interview.” More disturbingly, he also said “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.”.

Speaking to her own experiences, Iris can only smile indifferently.

“My mum won’t tell anyone she was beaten for years and her lover tried to strangle her more than once. What’s more, my mother is not even his wife, she is just a mistress. The law has no obligation to protect a mistress who can only live in the shadows.”

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Domestic violence, as the name suggests, is not just an argument of strangers but and a continued coercive control of partners. Ruth McIntyre from Women’s Refuge (2013) says the high rate of domestic violence in Australia boils down to one fundamental concept: gender inequality. Women were always considered weak, vulnerable and in a position to be exploited. Traditional cultural mores, religious practices, economic and political conditions may set the precedence for initiating and perpetuating domestic violence. It is a similar situation in China.

‘In China, husbands who beat their wives typically feel that they are exercising a right to maintain good order in the family and punish their wives’ wrongdoing – for me, my wrongdoing is that I didn’t give him a son.’ Iris’s mother explained.

Domestic violence is mainly meted on women owing to ingrained cultural beliefs that a man is superior to a woman. In this regard, domestic violence is viewed as abuse against women. Indeed, according to White Ribbon, one in three women have suffered from physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in Australia. On the contrary, the fraction of men that are abused by their partners is significantly smaller. Most cultures are male-dominated, where men are right regardless of their actions, and women blamed for things they had no power to control . For instance, in Iris’s mother’s case, a failure to give birth to a baby boy is blamed on the woman but not on the man.

Perhaps, though, the ultimate victims of domestic violence are children. For Iris, the abuse she and her mother suffered at the hands of father has resulted in an  intense fear and anxiety towards being around men.  She is afraid of relationships and resists marriage. Her bond with her mother, however, is strong.

“I don’t think my mum can leave my dad. In fact, I can’t leave him either. For my dad, my mother is a selfish woman, but for me, she loves me. She wants me to be independent, so she let me study abroad in Australia alone.”

“I rarely speak to my father. But my mother has always been proud of me. ”

*Names have been changed