A former medical worker launched a murderous knife attack on young children arriving for school in eastern China on Tuesday, killing eight and wounding five.

The attack transformed the yard of the Nanping City Experimental Elementary School in Fujian province into a horrific scene. Small bodies were covered in bloody sheets while doctors tended to the injured.

Police sealed off the scene and comforted distraught parents. Six of the children died at the scene.  

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A woman whose child was killed gets help outside an elementary school in Nanping. ((Associated Press))

The attacker was identified by the Xinhua News Agency as Zheng Minsheng, a 41-year-old who'd worked as a senior nurse at a nearby community clinic until he resigned last June. Earlier reports had said he was a doctor.

Witnesses said he was mingling with parents who were delivering their kids to school early Tuesday morning when he suddenly pulled out a large knife and began slashing students. Security guards and others managed to subdue the man, who had a history of mental illness. He was taken in to custody.

An unidentified former co-worker told a local TV interviewer that Zheng was "difficult to get along with."

Counselling will be provided for students when the school reopens Wednesday, the news agency said.

This is the latest in a series of school attacks that have shaken China in recent years.

The worst incident took place in March 2001, when 42 people — most of them children — were killed when a schoolhouse was destroyed in an explosion. 

Officials said a mentally ill man had burst into the school in Jiangxi province and blown up a bag of dynamite. But parents disputed that, saying their children had been forced to make fireworks.

Other school attacks have resulted in several deaths and dozens of injuries to students, leading the state to post security guards at many schools. 

China does not have a lot of support or medical services for those with mental illness, the CBC's Michel Cormier reports.

With files from The Associated Press