Four divorce petitions and two protective orders aren’t enough to allow this woman to leave her abusive husband

Society & Culture

Chinese courts can make it very difficult for a woman to get a divorce. But Ning Shunhua might finally win the right to a legal separation from her deadbeat husband partly thanks to outrage on social media.


The latest — never the last — horrific story about how depressingly difficult it is for women to leave an abusive relationship in China was brought to us by Níng Shùnhuā 宁顺花, who has been trying to escape her violent, gambling-addicted husband since 2016. She is currently on her fifth attempt to divorce him.

According to Red Star News (in Chinese), the 33-year-old woman filed her most recent divorce petition last month in Hengyang, Hunan province, nearly half a year after a local court denied her previous request.

The problems for Ning started almost immediately after her marriage in the summer of 2016 to Chén Dìnghuá 陈定华, a man from her village two years older than her. While they were dating, Ning said, there weren’t any obvious red flags. But quickly after they tied the knot, Ning discovered that Chen was unemployed and addicted to gambling. 

Tired of constant arguments about Chen’s gambling problem, Ning moved to Guangdong later that year and filed for divorce, claiming that their marriage was irretrievably broken. While waiting for her request to be processed, Chen was detained for 12 days in connection with an illegal gambling activity. But the local court in Hengyang denied Ning’s request, citing that she didn’t provide enough evidence to prove that her marriage was completely unsalvageable. 

Ning appealed the decision, but the court upheld its ruling. A year later, Ning submitted another divorce request, but it was rejected for the same reason. Ning appealed again, but nothing changed. In the meantime, Ning said Chen retaliated by robbing her of her phone and identification documents, as well as sending threatening messages to her family.

In May 2018, Ning applied for divorce again and failed. In December 2019, she tried for a fourth time. On the day when her case was heard, Chen violently attacked her outside the courthouse, causing multiple injuries to her face and body. Chen was detained after the assault. But the court still refused to put a stop to Ning’s suffering, saying that granting her a divorce would negatively affect “family stability and social harmony.”  Since then, the court has issued two protective orders against Chen, forbidding him from stalking Chen and harassing her family. 

In an interview with the newspaper, Ning said that Chen still refused to get divorced and told her that he’s willing to “take things to the extreme” in order to win her back. A lawyer who represented Ning in the past also revealed that Chen once smashed his car and had made death threats to judges. “He knows the boundaries of law so he never crossed the line of ‘picking quarrels and provoking troubles.’ This is the most troublesome part of the whole situation,” the lawyer said.

Since she shared her tale with Chongqing Morning Post (in Chinese), Ning’s case has captured the attention of many major news outlets and a great number of social media users, who have demanded that the court gives a valid explanation for denying Ning a safe exit from her abusive relationship. Ning’s supporters said that they admired her perseverance, and criticised the system for failing to protect Ning. Some mentioned other victims of intimate partner violence in China, like Lhamo 拉姆, who was attacked by her ex-husband during a live stream and died of her injuries two weeks later, and another woman in Henan Province, who was denied a divorce until footage of her abuse was circulated online. 

“What are considered adequate grounds for divorce? Her being beaten to death?” a Weibo user wrote (in Chinese), while another said, “The husband basically said he would do whatever he felt he needed to do to seek revenge. Isn’t that concerning? He’s like a bomb about to explode at any moment.”

Many hoped that the public outrage would help Ning get results, and it seems like the court is feeling the pressure. When talking to Red Star News, a spokesperson from the publicity department at the Hengyang government said that local officials were aware of “the discussion on the internet.” The court also noted that it had held internal meetings to discuss the case and would announce its decision as soon as possible. The local chapter of the All-China Women’s Federation told (in Chinese) that it had gotten in touch with Ning and would help her in any way possible with her lawsuit.

Ning’s case is extreme, but the harsh reality is that the dual issue she faces — lax laws against domestic violence exist alongside strict laws against divorce — is not unusual. While China implemented its first-ever anti-domestic violence law in 2016, enforcement is sporadic and punishments are light. On the other hand, obtaining a divorce is frustratingly difficult, especially with a 30-day “cooling off period” required by the government.