BEIJING - What's the worst thing that a despairing middle-aged man can do?
Keeping psychological theories in mind, he could commit suicide. But in China nowadays, despairing middle-aged men conjure up images of knife-wielding or gun-toting assailants who take out their frustration and anger by hurting innocent people.
Take Zhang Jianfei, 47 and standing trial for allegedly killing two and injuring 14 others in downtown Beijing last year.
On that fatal September evening, witnesses said a drunken Zhang - armed with a 20-cm-long knife - suddenly began chasing and stabbing anyone in his way on one of the busiest streets in the capital. He was finally overpowered by security guards who rushed to the scene.
The prosecution has recommended the death sentence while victims and families have demanded compensation totaling 3 million yuan. The indifferent man says he'll accept any court ruling.
From March through May, five men in their 40s committed separate random attacks on school children that terrorized the nation. The first and bloodiest happened in March when a 42-year-old unemployed man used a knife to kill eight students and wound five others as they waited outside a school in southeastern Fujian province.
Then in June, Zhu Jun, 46 and a post office security guard, barged into a court building in central Hunan province. He shot three judges before killing himself.
The incidents seem to have supported an alarming criminal pattern for middle-aged people. Statistics from some Chinese courts show that most of the assault cases they've handled involved middle-aged adults as defendants.
So what has driven them to do the horrible things?
Some experts blame social injustice and the widening gap between the rich and poor, while others lament a lack of school security and sensational journalism that may have triggered copycats.
But people may find it difficult to understand why people in their middle years should inflict harm on others without looking into the particular mental state of people at this phase in life.
Personality development theories say that people may want to decide if they are a success or failure when they are in their 40s. This is a particularly trying time in one's life because even successful people can be gripped by fleeting thoughts of despair and worthlessness. In the worst case, the so-called failures may develop psychotic depression as they realize their life has been in vain and their reason for existence has already disappeared.
Chinese middle-aged people are an unlucky lot to some extent. When they were young, many never had the proper training because of the Cultural Revolution" that wreaked havoc on the nation's education system. The growth in China's economy may have reinforced the middle-aged "failures" in the lower social strata. They may be feeling more despair as they reel from their feelings of non-competitiveness and lack of relevancy.
Besides, the Chinese society doesn't offer many opportunities for the "failures" to find a new course of life that will eventually lead to success. Instead, middle-aged people are often reminded that their time is already over and that they are losers if they haven't attained a certain social status or level of wealth.
Following media accounts that tried to reconstruct events in the killers' lives that led up to the killings, most had been experiencing personal crises. They took revenge against innocent people because they felt they were rejected or wronged by society.
Before Zhang's Beijing stabbings, he had a poor temperament and had no close friends. His estranged wife had also shunned him. His desperation became worse after he failed to find a decent job in Shanghai and Beijing for a few years.
Wang Yonglai, a 45-year-old farmer in east China, attacked five children with a hammer and then set himself ablaze in April after learning that he'd lose the house that took all his family savings to build. His family said he had lived in fear and extreme anxiety before the bloody outburst.
In its bid to build social harmony and justice, China might want to pay more attention to the situation of those in their middle years. People shudder to know that before the men went on their killing rampages, almost all had looked normal to their neighbors.