LINCHENG, China — Neighbors in this poor farm village say Wu Jianming seemed like a good, quiet man. They struggle now to understand how he could fly into a rage over unpaid rent, slashing and killing seven preschoolers and two adults with a cleaver.
Villagers heard screams early Wednesday coming from a preschool run out of Wu's two-story farmhouse, then heard Wu shout: "They owed me rent!"
Police and rescue officials who rushed to the scene found more than a dozen dead or injured students, the school's administrator nearly decapitated and her 80-year-old mother barely clinging to life. Wu was in his home nearby, dead after apparently slashing his own throat.
The case shocked China, prompting leaders to again call for increased school security. It was the deadliest of five such school rampages in less than two months.
In the communist leadership's first comment on the wave of violence, Premier Wen Jiabao acknowledged a need to seek the underlying causes of the attacks.
"Apart from the tougher security measures that we are taking, we also need to pay attention to the deeper reasons that caused these problems," Wen told Hong Kong's Phoenix TV late Wednesday.
"We are making serious efforts in tackling social tensions, settling disputes and improving local governments' ability to smooth things out," Wen said.
Speculation on the motive for the attack has centered on a spiraling dispute between Wu Huanming and the school's administrator, Wu Hongying.
However, a deputy police chief in the nearby city of Hanzhong said Wu Huanming had shown signs of depression and psychosis for some time as a result of worsening illnesses, including diabetes and an inflamed prostate.
Wu attempted suicide twice last month and repeatedly told family members of his intention to kill himself, Li Zhenfeng told reporters Wednesday. Wu also believed Wu Hongying had cast a spell on him preventing his recovery, Li said.
"With these factors combined, Wu Huanming decided to take his revenge against others and commit suicide, and he directed his hatred toward Wu Huanming," Li told a news conference.
Sociologists say the recent attacks that have left 17 dead and scores wounded reflect the tragic consequences of ignoring mental illness and rising stress resulting from huge social inequalities in China's fast-changing society.
Zhen Xiulan, 71, lives a short walk away from the preschool and said she knew Wu his entire life. She can't reconcile her image of Wu with the blood-spattered scene she saw after the killings.
Zhen said the children had massive head gashes.
"This kid was very honest and didn't talk much," Zhen said of Wu. "He had a very soft and gentle personality and didn't have mental problems that we knew of. None of us would ever have imagined he would do something so terrible."
She said Wu had two children as well as two younger brothers.
What drove him to violence, another neighbor said, was the dispute over his yellow farmhouse at the foot of Lincheng, a softly sloping village on the outskirts of Hanzhong city that overlooks a deep green patchwork of rapeseed crops and magnolia trees.
"He wanted his place back and they weren't paying him enough money," said neighbor Yang Yuanyong. Yang said the seeds of the dispute were sown when the local village head sold the land where the local public preschool used to be and then arranged to have a new private preschool set up in Wu's farmhouse. It was unclear why the land was sold.
Wu complained the rent wasn't being paid and repeatedly demanded the school leave his property, but they kept delaying, Yang said. Local officials refused to intervene, he said.
Wu's neighbors sympathized strongly with his money woes and criticized the local government for closing the public preschool. But they had no way of explaining how a land dispute, common in nearly every county in China, could spiral into such a deadly killing spree or why children should be the main victims.
Chinese sociologists say there could be a copycat element to the sudden explosion of school stabbings, with disturbed people inspired by media reports of other killings.
The attackers in recent cases have all been men in their thirties or forties, most of them out of work. Knives and hammers are the preferred weapons – guns are tightly controlled in China and obtaining them is virtually impossible.
It was not clear whether Wu knew of the other recent attacks. His neighbors said they were vaguely aware but unclear about the details.
To help calm public fears in a country where population control policies limit many families to just one child, the government issued an urgent order Wednesday for even tighter safety measures at schools, including private ones.
At the 3201 Hospital in Hanzhong city where six of the 11 most severely injured children were being treated, administrator Cui Xiangbin said the injuries, and his staff's response, were like nothing he had experienced in his 27-year career at the hospital.
"We've never seen anything like this before, never," said Cui, visibly shaken. "When we saw the mothers in pain who had lost their children, all of us were in tears."