The terrorist incident, in which eight suspected ethnic Uighar separatists also injured 143 people in a knifing rampage Saturday in the southwestern city of Kunning, sent shockwaves through the country.
Media outlets referred to the mass stabbing as "China's 9/11," the British newspaper the Guardian reported.
"These eight people originally wanted to participate in jihad. After they were unable to leave from Yunnan (in northeastern China) they turned around and went to other places," said Qin Guangrong, Communist Party chief of Yunnan province, which includes Kunning.
His explanation may explain why the attack was carried out in Kunning, the Guardian said, a peaceful and multi-ethnic city of 6.4 million near the Chinese border with Vietnam.
Four suspects were killed at the scene, and four others were arrested.
The unidentified leader of a police team sent to stop the 12-minute killing spree told CCTV state television he shot five of the suspects in 15 seconds.
"When I arrived ... by car, I saw some people using knives to slash passersby," he said. "I fired my gun. At the time I could see that there were five attackers. They turned around and wanted to slash me."