- Domestic violence casts a global shadow, even to this day.
- China's collectivistic, family-focused culture compound the challenge of confronting this problem.
- Recent legal cases suggest a tipping pointing in China's willingness to address domestic violence.
- The United States can set an example by instituting proactive policies that assist victims of domestic violence.
My teaching in China for the last dozen years awakened me to many cultural differences between China and the United States. One of the most striking differences pertains to spousal abuse.
Spousal abuse — also called “domestic violence” (DV), "domestic partner abuse", or “intimate partner violence” (IPV) — can include sexual, economic, physical, emotional, and/or psychological components. It encompasses any violent, coercive, or threatening act between domestic partners.
Mental health professionals in the US are generally aware of the scourge of spousal abuse. It is openly reported and discussed in our media, and both spousal and child abuse are the focus of legislation and legal action designed to prevent their occurrence. While our success is far from perfect, the US has a precedent for naming, discouraging, and reporting abuse occurring within the home.
Domestic violence in China
China faces a different situation; male dominance within the home is a cultural tradition going back millennia. (An old Chinese saying reportedly goes: "If you don’t beat your wife every three days, she’ll start tearing up roof tiles.") The cultural shift toward gender parity has been unevenly adopted; to this day, many still see physical punishment and harsh criticism as an integral part of both child-rearing and intimate partnerships. It was only in the last 25 years or so that physical abuse became acceptable grounds for divorce.
According to China’s own government statistics, 1 in 4 Chinese women are subjected to domestic violence. (That number is likely much higher; a China Daily report stated that nearly 40%, or 2 in 5 women, had experienced spousal abuse.) China passed new regulations in 2014, stressing mediation and family-based attempts to reform the abuser, but this has since proven ineffective. Empirical data suggest a dual difficulty in 1) confronting abusers, and 2) preventing abused women from returning to abusive situations. Despite the removal of legal and social policies positioning women as subordinate to men, it remains difficult — in some cases, seemingly impossible — for women to be freed from the shackles of spousal abuse.
Roadblocks to escaping domestic violence
Two recent stories that circulated widely in China underscore the difficulty that Chinese women have in getting relief from such situations.
In one recent case, a court denied divorce to a woman after she jumped from a second-story window, suffering paralysis in her desperate attempt to escape beating from her husband. The judge ruled that her injuries could have been caused by a suicide attempt: this after records show that the husband pushed her to the ground, hit her repeatedly, and threw away her phone so she could not call the police. The court denied her divorce on the grounds that her husband wanted to continue the relationship, and that in order to obtain sufficient evidence, she would need to file a criminal complaint against her husband. Only after the case went viral and caused a national backlash did the court eventually reconsider and grant the divorce. (Feng, 2020)
In a second example: When a woman filed for divorce, her abusive husband retaliated by hiding her phone and identification documents, and threatening her family. A Chinese court denied her request for divorce on the grounds that she had not provided enough evidence that the marriage was unsalvageable. Meanwhile, the abuse continued; after her fourth attempt at divorce, her husband attacked her outside the courthouse and even made death threats to judges. The court then issued protective orders, but still refused to grant the divorce, stating that it would have a “negative effect [on] family stability and social harmony.” Finally, the woman shared her story with the Chongqing Morning Post, after which it captured the attention of major news outlets. At the time of this news report, the court was having “internal meetings” to discuss the case further. (Feng, 2021)
While these two cases are extreme, they occur within a broader context of national policy intended to support marriage, and social and family harmony above all else, even at the cost of women’s personal safety and bodily autonomy.
In these cases, as well as countless others, the difficulty of leaving an abusive marriage is complicated by the following factors:
- an emphasis on family loyalty and cultural stigma against speaking ill of one’s family
- legal roadblocks for divorce, including mediation and a recently mandated 30-day “cooling off” period for divorce petitions
- Chinese courts’ reluctance to disturb the family order, even in dire circumstances
This is not to say that the West does not have its own problems with spousal abuse. In any given year, some 10 million Americans actually report spousal abuse in the US, but roughly 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men will experience domestic violence. We must remember that it was not so long ago that in Europe and the United States, a woman was considered to be her husband’s property and he was entitled to beat her without recourse.
Necessary action to combat abuse
Both law and social opprobrium have come a long way, but to truly combat spousal abuse, we need endorsement and enhancement of the following actions:
- Offer emotional support for people struggling to leave abusive relationships. This means offering resources to victims of domestic violence, including shelters, economic relief, and legal protection.
- Remove legal roadblocks that slow or prevent people from leaving abusive partners. While the US has adopted many more preventative measures, legal protections vary state by state, and often dramatically.
- De-stigmatize talk therapy — for men, women, and children — as a preventative measure. Therapy has been shown to improve communication and emotional health between couples, and would likely reduce instances of partner conflict, including spousal abuse.
- Expand mandatory reporting laws, which require professionals to report instances of abuse, with steep repercussions if they fail to do so. While these laws date back to the 1960s, not all states have adopted them. Unilateral federal protection for victims of spousal abuse would prevent cases from slipping through the cracks. (I note that some victims feel that such laws operate against their safety by discouraging them from reporting abuse, but it is widely held that these laws overall operate to protect both victims and the professionals who work to help them.)
China’s recent modernization has created a culture clash between the old ways and the new. As ancient ideologies give way to modernization, and as patriarchal power dynamics give way to a system of values that puts women’s rights and safety on equal footing, we must bear in mind that our own history is inglorious in these regards. For now, we should view our own social development with humility, and with a sense of how much there is still to accomplish, both at home and abroad.
Facts and Details.com (2015) Domestic Violence in China. The Diplomat. http://factsanddetails.com/china/cat4/sub21/entry-4456.html. July, 2015. Accessed April 18, 2021.
Feng, Jiayun (2020) Court denies divorce to woman after she was paralyzed from a jump to escape domestic violence. SupChina, July 23, 2020.
Feng, Jiayun (2021) Four divorce petitions and two protective orders aren’t enough to allow this woman to leave her abusive husband. SupChina April 15, 2021. Accessed April 15, 2021. HTTPS://SUPCHINA.COM/2021/04/15/FOUR-DIVORCE-PETITIONS-AND-TWO-PROTECTIVE-ORDERS-ARENT-ENOUGH-TO-ALLOW-THIS-WOMAN-TO-LEAVE-HER-ABUSIVE-HUSBAND/
Mak, Sophie (2020) China’s hidden Epidemic: Domestic Violence. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/CHINAS-HIDDEN-EPIDEMIC-DOMESTIC-VIOLENC…
Kuo, M. (2012). Spousal Abuse: Divorce Litigation and the Emergence of Rights Consciousness in Republican China. Modern China, 38(5), 523-558. Retrieved April 21, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41702469
Huecker MR, King KC, Jordan GA, et al. (2021). Domestic Violence. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499891/