Published: May 13, 2010 5:51 PM EDT

 LINCHENG, China (AP) - Neighbors in this lush but 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.

Neighbors 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.

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 a 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.

A rusty merry-go-round stood silently in the Shengshui Temple Kindergarten's inner courtyard. Hanzhong, a city of about 4 million people, bears the signs of a recent flood of investment, including a new cinema, several high-rise hotels and a smattering of fast food chain restaurants like Baskin Robbins and KFC.

But Lincheng, about a 20-minute drive away, remains rural and poor. Most young adults have left to find work elsewhere, villagers said, leaving children and the elderly to tend the fields and raise the chickens. 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. Wang Xiaoming, 27, a local farmer whose 1-year-old son is not yet in school, shrugged helplessly.

"For us Chinese, it's such a shameful thing how he could hack at so many people, so many innocent children," he said, sitting on his tractor and staring up at the school cordoned off in bright yellow police tape. "It's not something any of us could ever have imagined." He didn't know Wu personally. He also said he wasn't worried about local school security because the odds of such an attack happening again seemed so remote.

But others are very concerned. 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.

Nurses and doctors openly wept as they stitched the wounded and cleaned the dead, Cui said. The elderly mother of school manager Wu Hongying, Su Runhua, died heading into surgery.

"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."