I was the abuser in my family.
It was early in the morning on April 21, 2014, and I had just hit my wife so hard, she was left crouching on the bed, unable to move. The sound emerging from her lips then was unlike any I’d ever heard before: low, heavy, like a wild beast.
Several years later, when I was a volunteer at China White Ribbon Volunteer, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to engaging men in preventing violence against women, I heard that sound again, in a public service announcement featuring a woman who had been abused. It’s the sound you make after being beaten so hard even crying hurts.
I know I will never truly understand the depths of the pain I caused. But I can still hear that sound.
Ding and I attended the same high school, but we wouldn’t meet until later, through a matchmaker. She was gentle, the type of girl I wanted to spend my life with. Yet, even before we got married, I began to sense that I could be controlling. Compared with Ding’s family, my parents weren’t wealthy, and I was not as educated as her. Deep down, I felt inferior. The day we applied for our marriage certificate, I yelled at her because she wanted to buy a relatively expensive ring. Tears streamed down her face, but I just couldn’t understand why it was so important to her.
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The real turning point came on the day of our wedding reception. Her family was there, and it suddenly occurred to me that she would be staying at my home from now on — that she belonged to me.
After the wedding, I grew more controlling, and we started arguing all the time. I wanted to know where she had been, when she’d be home. If she didn’t answer my calls, I would become anxious or feel disrespected.
One night, not long after our wedding, we were watching TV in bed when she told me her cousin had started giving his salary over to his wife after they got married. “How about you give me yours?” she asked.
It’s not an uncommon practice in China, but I felt my rage swelling in my breast at this challenge to my masculine pride and my dominant role in the family. She kept talking, but I stayed stubbornly mute. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. To get her to shut up, I kicked her in the leg.
That was the first hint of what was to come. At the time, she was six months pregnant.
The next morning, she warned me that if I hit her again, she would tell the women’s delegate on the village committee. But that meant nothing to me. I thought it ludicrous she’d actually believe the village committee would get involved in our domestic issues. To tell the truth, I still do.
She never put her faith to the test, and life went on. But two months after my first violent incident, there was a second, then a third. Whenever there was a problem or conflict I didn’t want to face or solve, or if I just wanted to shut her up, my solution was to use violence.
I now know that the strong desire for control is a common trait among perpetrators of domestic violence. Back then, I didn’t get along with my co-workers, and my boss was always on my case for one thing or another. Though my colleagues thought of me as an honest and gentle person, I felt so much anger and anxiety inside. And whenever I felt I had lost control at work, I turned on my family, trying to reassert it at home. Ding wouldn’t always listen, but I had my strength, and violence helped me regain my lost pride.
The frequency of my explosions increased over time. Often, it wasn’t because of something she said or did. Sometimes, after a bad day at work, my rage was so suffocating, I just wanted to blow off steam however I could. I was already itching for a fight on my way home. By the time I got there, it wouldn’t take much for me to start hitting her.
Sometimes I’d feel regret, but only for a second. Then I would be flooded by a feeling of relief I could only get by releasing my anger through my fists. Afterward, I would apologize, but I didn’t truly feel sorry. Sometimes I’d slap myself or punch the wall, but these were threats rather than assurances: a sign I wanted her to be scared and shut up.
Our parents learned about my violent behavior before long, but the only person who really took it seriously was her father, who repeatedly made me promise never to hit her again. When her mother learned what I had done, she asked Ding if she had done something to provoke me. She seemed to care more about her grandson. And my parents? They just wrote my behavior off as “a bad habit” and tried to persuade Ding not to leave me.
Indeed, in my family, violence was hardly a big deal. Everyone in my hometown knows you don’t want to mess with the Gu family. My grandfather picked fights on the street when he was young, and he passed his faith in violence as a sign of masculine power down to my father and uncles. When I was a child, I often heard them say with pride that they “taken care of” someone.
They didn’t respect women, or weakness, which to them were basically the same thing. My grandfather beat my aunt, and during my own childhood, my father never allowed me to show weakness or cry. He didn’t feel obliged to communicate with me; his only means of educating me involved punishment or threats. Growing up in a family like this, what I hated — or more accurately, what I feared — most was any suggestion that I somehow wasn’t man enough.
Violence was passed down from one generation of my family to another in this way. My own reached a peak in 2014. In a single month I might hit my wife three times. My anger was piling up and getting out of control. I even hit my sick grandfather with a mop when he was staying with us, because I was annoyed by an argument he had with my father. It was a pathetic reversal of fortune: him reaping the vicious repercussions of his youthful misbehavior when he was too old to fight back. Even more pathetic: My father did nothing to stop me.
DigitalVision Vectors/People Visual
But eventually my rage led to an incident Ding’s family couldn’t ignore. On April 20, 2014, I attended a wedding with Ding and her parents, during which she criticized me for walking too fast and for leaving her alone to take care of our son. We fought, and she threw a pack of cigarettes at me. Because my in-laws were there, I suppressed my anger, but not for long.
At around 5 the next morning, when Ding came back to bed from the bathroom, she bumped into me, waking me up. I saw it as intentional, and the fury that had been building within me exploded. I jumped up, clenched my fist, and hit her in the head. In that moment, she wasn’t my wife; she wasn’t even a woman. My fist hit her like a hammer, dropping over and over like some relentless machine.
Her mother heard the noise and burst into our room. “Have you lost your mind?” she shouted, dragging me away. But then she heard my son crying in the other room. As soon as she went off to tend to him, I continued the beating. Ding could only crouch and protect her head with her arms. It was not until her mother came back to separate us again that I stopped. Her mother held her up as she staggered to the other room.
That day, I went back to work as usual, like nothing had happened. But I had a sense of foreboding that this time was different.
Still, I believed I could get away with it with another insincere apology and our life would once again return to normal. That belief persisted right up until I received a subpoena. Ding had sued me for divorce. I finally realized my marriage was no longer under my control. And that’s when I got scared.
It was then, during my anxious wait for the trial to begin, that I saw an eight-episode documentary broadcast on the state-run China Central Television network. I had never thought of beating your wife as a real problem, but for the first time in my life, I was confronted with women’s side to the story. I watched as one of the interviewees calmly talked about how her boyfriend had poked her eyes out because she had rejected his proposal. That man had been arrested, but she eventually found herself in another abusive relationship with a man who married her, then beat her, even when she was pregnant with his child. I remember clearly she was wearing prison clothes: Eventually, she had killed him.
From the outside, it all seemed so horrible. I couldn’t even imagine how much pain those women had suffered. Then I thought about Ding. I had barely felt any empathy with my wife before. But after watching these women sharing their experiences and feelings, it finally occurred to me what my wife had been through.
A China White Ribbon Volunteer flag with handprints from volunteers. From 学者方刚 on WeChat
I had never thought of myself as cruel, but I realized I was just like the men in these women’s stories. So I started calling a hotline run by China White Ribbon Volunteer, which had been featured in the documentary. At each counseling session, I tried hard to recall every incident and detail of our marriage, and of my childhood, hoping to find the root of my violence and my disrespect for women. But I knew there would never be some eureka moment. I needed the persistence to keep at it. Over and over, I had to check my former self and challenge my masculinity; over and over I had to learn to control my sudden eruptions of anger; over and over I had to figure out how to communicate and cope with problems or conflicts, rather than evade them.
From time to time, I could feel myself on the edge of giving in. Once, when I quarreled with my father about his education methods, I grabbed my son and took him back to my bedroom. But he was scared and would not stop crying. I didn’t know how to comfort him, and my anxiety exploded. I threw him on the floor. When I snapped out of it, I knew I had screwed up. I held him in my arms and apologized, meaning it this time: “Daddy was wrong! Please forgive me… If you want to cry, just let your tears out.”
To pull myself back from the edge, I started to drive 40 kilometers every weekend to attend charity events run by a Buddhist group, and even the occasional meditation session. And I tried to make peace with who I am. There was a line in Episode 7 of the CCTV series that stuck with me: Domestic violence perpetrators are victims of the patriarchy. Until I dealt with this toxic legacy, I would never get better. A man’s success isn’t necessarily defined by his achievements at work. To help drive this point home, I changed jobs to a position that pays less, but wasn’t as stressful and allowed me more time to be with my son.
I hurt Ding. I was not a good husband. But I want to be a good father, and I don’t want my son to make the same mistakes I did.
In 2019, I took part in a Chinese staging of “The Penis Monologues,” a play that discusses and dissects masculinity. My story was one of those featured. I hoped it would resonate and convince other perpetrators of domestic violence to seek help. That’s also why I became an anti-domestic violence volunteer.
As I’ve opened my eyes and ears, many of the things that used to bother me no longer do so. I used to hate it when people called me weak or not masculine enough, but now I like it when others call me “soft.” I take it as a sign that I’m learning compassion and developing a stronger ability to empathize with others.
Sometimes I ask my son to rate my progress. Three years ago, he gave me two points for not scolding him and starting to smile. Last year, I got two more points for talking with him more and occasionally playing with him.
Looking back, I thank Ding for making the right decision to leave me. If she hadn’t, my violence against her might have escalated and my son would have grown up in a household defined by pain. I know it’s very difficult for a perpetrator to completely change. Sometimes I wonder whether I can do it, or whether I’ll one day slide back into old habits. Honestly, I don’t know the answer. But I want to try.
As told to Sixth Tone’s Cai Yiwen.
In China, the China White Ribbon Volunteer group can be reached at 4000-110-391. Victims of domestic violence can contact the official hotline at 12338 or NGO-sponsored services like the Avon-Equality helpline at 151-1790-5157.
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: E+/AMR Image/People Visual)