I tried writing this part of the series earlier this weekend, but got stuck every time I tried to find a way to change the topic to one that would help balance it out. Nothing worked. I finally decided that it was a story that needed to be told, and that to soften it in any way, would be a disservice to the students who lived it.
Child abuse in rural China is rampant. From the stories I’ve heard from students I would say that more than half of them were physically or verbally abused. Some of the time it is at the hands of their grandparents or other relatives, or by their teachers, but often it is their own parents.
The first thing you need to understand with this issue is that China has no law concerning child abuse (Note: There are provisions about Minors in the Chinese constitution, but they do not provide any means of actually protecting children). This was highlighted by a case in 2009 in which a young girl was tortured by her parents, but they never faced a criminal trial because there was no law that could be used against them. Under the present law another family member would have to sue the parents, which almost never happens. China also has no equivalent of Child Protective Services, so in the case of the young girl, her mother was never held by police, since she had 3 other children to “raise”.
I had the chance to talk about child abuse with some teachers in Yizhou one night, and asked them how they disciplined their children. They laughed about it, like people often do when they are confronted with something personal and uncomfortable. One of them told me that when his 6 year-old daughter was “naughty”, he would make her kneel on the concrete floor for 1-2 hours. Another said that when her 16 year-old son wouldn’t listen to her she would punch him in the arm or slap his face. Others talked about using a piece of bamboo to whip their children.
The attitude seems to be fairly similar in the cities. The other week brought forward yet another case of teachers abusing their students. In this case a kindergarten teacher burned 7 of her students on the face with a hot iron because they had been “naughty”. I talked with my co-worker, Grace, about this, expecting her to be outraged since her daughter is the same age as those who were burned. Instead she took the teacher’s side, “What else could she do?” Grace said, “They weren’t listening to her.”
Children can be criticized for almost anything. I even had a friend whose father didn’t talk to him for a week because he needed glasses. The father had shouted “How could you be so careless! You should have protected your eyesight!”
Note: the next two stories are disturbing.
One of Kyle’s students had been left behind in the countryside to live with her aunt and uncle while her parents worked in the factories of the East Coast. One day a neighbor came to the house and claimed that she had killed one of their chickens, and she insisted that she hadn’t. As a result of her “insolence” her uncle beat her so badly that she lost a tooth. When she called her parents crying about what had happened, begging them to let her move to the coast with them, they told her she should not be such an awful girl.
Another student told me that one morning she had been walking to school with her younger brother when someone pointed out that he had the bigger part of the apple, and that it was because he was a boy. The student was mad, because she knew that it was true, and so in defiance she threw away her part of the apple. When she returned home that night her mother was enraged, one of the neighbors had seen her throw away the apple. Her mother grabbed her by the arm and dragged her down to the river. Pulling her daughter close, she jumped into the river, and neither of them could swim. She shouted at the student that she would rather die than raise a disobedient child. After 5 or 10 minutes of struggling to breathe, the mother finally brought her to shore.
This article is also partially in response to an article on Chinese-style parenting that appeared in the WSJ the other day.