Six years ago, shortly after I moved to Shanghai, I overheard a furious argument between the couple who lived next door to me. The couple screamed at each other and then came the unmistakable sound of an open palm slapping skin -- once, twice and a third time.

This continued for another 15 minutes. Neither my other neighbors nor I intervened or called the police.

This was the first of many such episodes. When I've expressed my feelings of helplessness over the ongoing battles between my neighbors, my friends have often responded with a Chinese proverb: “Even the wisest judge can’t adjudicate family disputes.” One Chinese friend advised, “You can’t do anything. If you call the police, they’ll tell you to mind your own business.”

He had good reason to think that: China has no law related to domestic abuse. Its courts and law enforcement agencies did not even issue protection orders for victims of domestic abuse until 2008.

Yet domestic abuse is pervasive in China. According to a national survey by the All-China Women's Federation, China's largest non-governmental organization for women, a third of Chinese families are affected by it, and 85 to 90 percent of the victims are women. Those numbers are extraordinary in part because the respondents were willing to admit that their families are imperfect. In traditional Chinese culture, one must overcome intense social pressure to say such a thing. Perhaps that explains why 33 percent of respondents said there was abuse within their marriage but only 5 percent  described their family as unhappy.

Simply put, many Chinese do not consider domestic abuse a problem. For years, Chinese women’s organizations have campaigned for legislation to combat domestic abuse and have tried to reverse this societal norm. But apart from gaining some press coverage, they have had little success making an impact.

That was before the case of celebrity couple Li Yang and Kim Lee. Li Yang is the founder of China’s most famous English-language teaching system, Crazy English; Kim Lee is his American wife.

On Aug. 31, Lee did what no other Chinese wife had dared to do: she posted images of her badly beaten face on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular microblog. At the top of the image she wrote this message: “I love losing my face = I love hitting my wife’s face?”

Lee's husband famously exhorts his English-language students to “love losing face,” meaning that making mistakes helps one learn and should not be shameful. Li has more than 600,000 followers on Weibo.

For those who couldn’t connect the dots, Lee made things explicit over the next several days. She elaborated on Sina Weibo: "You knocked me to the floor. You sat on my back. You choked my neck with both hands and slammed my head into the floor."

She then tweeted more photos of her injuries, with captions ordering her husband “not to be violent with me in the presence of our child.”

The fact that Kim Lee is an American wasn't lost on Chinese microbloggers. According to Purple Buterfly6868, a user of the Sina microblog, Lee’s behavior “represents a challenge toward traditional Chinese marriage values.” But Purple Buterfly 6868 wasn't necessarily critical. This user later tweeted,

Based on the way that Li Yang handles domestic abuse, Chinese and Americans view marriage in different ways. Chinese sayings like "don't wash your dirty linen in public" … prove the insularity of the Chinese family.

Not every Chinese netizen was pleased to see this national discussion driven by the actions of a foreign woman. Purple Queen tweeted on Sina Weibo:

For years, there were so many Chinese women experiencing domestic abuse who didn’t stir up voices against domestic abuse. Now a celebrity's foreign wife is hit, and the public is calling for legislation.

If China’s netizens are unaccustomed to seeing the public airing of domestic squabbles, let alone between celebrities, Lee's husband was perhaps more surprised than anyone.  In a Sept. 13 interview with China Daily, he 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.”

In another Sept. 13 interview with China’s Legal Daily he seemed to defend his actions:

A husband beating his own wife cannot be called a problem, some of my friends have told me. Many Chinese people think the same and they prefer to keep silent because they believe it is simply family business not to be disclosed.

Undeterred, Lee has continued to air the matter publicly.

“The Li Yang incident should sound the alarm for us," wrote Xue Menzi, a well-known investor, in a Sina tweet. "The anti-domestic violence law ought to be issued as soon as possible.” On Sept. 8, China Daily briefly reported that a piece of long dormant legislation on domestic abuse had been resuscitated, in part because of the Li Yang case, and that it was likely to be passed soon. However, in the past week, there has been no further information on the legislation in the Chinese media.

For some netizens, the more important issue is whether China’s women will speak up now about domestic abuse, and whether society will listen. Wu Wei, director of a Beijing e-commerce company, tweeted:

Our law enforcement and judiciary always use  the excuse "even the wisest judge can’t adjudicate family disputes" to look on with folded arms, or they just "try to smooth things over" … Women must know how to defend their rights and society must give them enough attention and concern!

This week, Lee announced on Sina Weibo that her husband met with the police and that he asked for her forgiveness. There’s no question her tweeted photos and messages have made domestic abuse a more acceptable topic of conversation in China. This was unthinkable even three weeks ago. Unclear is what effect that conversation will have on the violence itself.  

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Katherine Brown at kbrown114@bloomberg.net