Crazy English founder Li Yang’s excuse for beating wife and children: I’m Chinese!

Society & Culture

The charismatic founder of a cultlike chain of English-teaching schools is in the news again, 10 years after revelations that he was physically assaulting his wife. This time, his now ex-wife says, Li is abusing their children.

li yang
Li Yang gives a lecture on a playground of a middle school in Mengcheng, east Chinas Anhui province, 19 March 2009. Hu Weiguo / Reuters

In 2011, when Kim Lee, the American ex-wife of Lǐ Yáng 李阳, who rose to fame in China with his unconventional language-learning program called Crazy English, leveled allegations of domestic violence against him, Li publicly acknowledged his “problematic” behavior and vowed not to “commit violence” again. 

It turned out, though, that his promise was empty: Ten years later, Lee came forward again with claims of verbal and physical abuse against Li, this time on behalf of her children.

In an emotional post (in Chinese) published to her Weibo page over the weekend, which so far has been shared over 40,000 times and received nearly 1 million likes, Lee alleged that her ex-husband was abusive toward their daughters, Lǐ Huá 李华 and Lǐ Nà 李娜, who are 12 and 15.

“Ten years ago, Li Hua rescued me from your violence. Today, Li Na had to save Li Hua from your violence. You have not changed a bit,” Lee wrote. “When you beat me, you said it’s Chinese culture. I had no choice but to divorce you. Because you are the father of my children, I granted you my forgiveness. I congratulated you for getting married to a young woman and having a new baby.”

Her goodwill, however, wasn’t reciprocated. Instead, Li, as she alleged, “brutally hit” the teenagers and limited their communication with the outside world. “How could you do this? They are your own children!” her post continued.

She also hit out at Li’s followers, asking them to stop worshiping a “criminal” and berating them for being complicit in her children’s alleged plight. “You and your students at Crazy English threatened them not to tell their mom or anyone about what happened at home,” she said. “It’s 2021 and they are still defending you by saying ‘You don’t understand Chinese culture. Li is our great teacher.’ I hope every single person associated with Crazy English knows that China now has an anti-domestic-violence law.”

Lee accompanied her post with a video showing what sounded like a heated altercation between her children and her ex-husband. “What happened? Sit down!” Li can be heard yelling (in English) at Li Hua as the girl sobs loudly. Her older sister, who appears to be the one who filmed the dispute, interrupts Li’s outburst and screams back, “What are you doing? Do you want to beat me? Why do you want to kill me?” The sound of thumping can be heard throughout the entire video, but it’s unclear if either of the teenagers was physically hurt. 

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The disturbing clip has since been viewed more than 44 million times on Weibo, where people were quick to express solidarity with Lee, and cursed Li as a “disgusting monster” and “a violent psychopath,” among many other labels. “What a maniac. He should be sent to jail or a psych ward,” a Weibo user commented (in Chinese). Another person wrote (in Chinese), “Beating women and children has never been part of Chinese culture. Li Yang needs to stop making stupid excuses for his despicable behavior!”

In a follow-up post (in Chinese) shared on August 30, Lee updated the concerned observers on her daughters’ situation, saying that the two were now safe with her. “I want to thank my supporters and I accept all the criticism. But the bottom line is, abusers are always at fault, not victims,” she wrote. Lee also attached screenshots of her conversations with the two adolescents.

“This is the first time I stood up to him instead of sitting there crying,” the older daughter wrote. “After he tried to choke me and punch me and tried to pull me to the floor by my hair, I punched back. I think he saw a psychotic look in my eyes as I was screaming and I saw him become a little scared and back off.” In another message from the younger daughter, she told her mother “not to say anything” because she didn’t want Li to “get even more mad.”  

In a statement (in Chinese) sent through his lawyer, Li denied Lee’s claims, arguing that the incident has been blown out of proportion and that it was caused by their “different opinions on their daughters’ upbringing.” When contacted by The Paper, an employee at Li’s Crazy English chain of English-teaching schools said (in Chinese) that the celebrity entrepreneur was unaffected by the scandal and would still be teaching classes as previously scheduled. 

However, outside Crazy English, very few people were on Li’s side. By today, he was a trending topic on Weibo, and the backlash was still at full blast despite the statement saying that he would pursue aggressive legal action against those who propagate “malicious rumors” about him. “There’s no remorse in his words for his actions, and it terrifies me. It’s obvious that he thinks men are entitled to beat their wives and children,” a Weibo user remarked (in Chinese). Others urged Lee to report the alleged abuse to police and other relevant authorities. 

In 2016, China implemented its first-ever anti-domestic violence law. In addition to shielding people from their abusive partners, the law also addresses physical aggression against children and elders — all issues that were both taboo to discuss and disturbingly common.

Ironically, the creation and passing of the law were partly results of Lee and Li’s high-profile divorce case. In 2011, Lee first came to the public eye after she posted graphic photos of her bleeding ears, bruised legs, and swollen forehead on the Chinese internet, claiming that the injuries were caused by brutal beatings from her husband, Li. Two years later, a Beijing court determined that Li had been abusive and granted Lee a divorce with full custody of their daughters. 

At a time when intimate partner violence was generally viewed as a private family matter, Lee’s case sparked tens of thousands of posts on China’s nascent social media platforms and became a hot topic in the media, raising an unprecedented amount of awareness around the issue and paving the way for more open discussions related to the matter. As her divorce case progressed, Lee also inadvertently became a folk hero for women who have been victims of domestic violence in China. “This ruling takes away some of the sting and the sadness and the pain of divorce,” Lee told the Independent after the court’s ruling. “The laws on domestic violence in China are too weak. My case can be the catalyst for change.”

Li, on the other hand, continued to build his English-learning business without showing much contrition or proof that he was actively seeking treatment for his violent tendencies, as he had promised in an interview after the abuse scandal blew up. During an appearance on a talk show in 2011, Li said (in Chinese) that hitting Lee “was not a serious mistake” and that he deserved forgiveness because he had already apologized. When confronted by a foreign guest, who was married to a Chinese husband and called out Li for using “cultural differences” as an excuse to justify his behavior, Li hit back with — as you may have guessed — threats of violence. “I will hit you, too, if you keep talking rudely to me,” he said with a menacing look on his face. 

As his public image deteriorated, Li appeared to have fully and unabashedly leaned into the unhinged side of his personality and turned his fandom into a cultlike community, training his followers to not only employ his language-learning methods but also adopt his way of thinking.  In a video (in Chinese) that made the rounds on Chinese social media in 2018, Li can be seen asking hundreds of his students, “Will beating your wife affect your children’s growth?” to which they replied with a resounding “No!”