A mother of four reportedly poisoned her children then killed them with an axe because she could not afford to feed them. Yang Gailan, 28, reportedly took her children to a small road near their home in the mountain village of Agu and murdered them with an axe, according to Kangle county authorities.

Following the incident, Yang then took her own life by drinking agricultural chemicals and, shortly before she died, Yang told her grandmother: "I was forced to ... You don't understand. I can't make you understand," said a police report.

On 4 September — eight days after the murder-suicide — Yang's husband, Li Keying, was found dead in a forest. He had apparently also taken poison, overwhelmed with grief at the death of his wife and children.

The terrible conditions of the family came to light in a report by People's Daily Online. The children were not covered by national medical insurance and denied attending school because they were not registered on the official system until 2015.

The family were also refused from the Chinese poverty relief scheme and lived on crops. "The family didn't talk much and were not popular. The welfare was thus allocated to families in favourable economic situations," said an official.

The tragic murder-suicide has raised questions about poverty in rural China, where around 200 million people are believed to be suffering from severe privations. Posts on Chinese social media network Weibo were divided on the actions of the mother.

One person wrote: "Through this tragedy, I see the corrupted local officials, I see the cold and selfish people, and I see the desperate and helpless family. It has revealed a hard truth of this country that the most vulnerable are treated with smear rather than sympathy," said the Weibo user.

Another said: "What is more terrifying than poverty is the loss of hope and faith. That is the extreme desperation of helplessness."

Not everyone was as understanding of the mother's desperate measures. "You can't always wait anxiously for welfare. There's a larger number of ways to escape poverty than there are challenges posed by it."