Mainland news outlets have been brushing up on their Danish fairy tales as they struggle to understand the deaths of five young boys who were huddled in a large refuse bin on chilly night in remote Guizhou province this month.
The boys - all brothers or cousins, aged nine to 13 - had apparently succumbed to carbon-monoxide poisoning after burning charcoal to keep warm. Their bodies were discovered by an elderly scavenger in the early hours of November 16, although it was several days before internet outrage forced local authorities to confirm the story.
The boys' plight may have reminded some of The Little Match Girl, Hans Christian Andersen's bittersweet tale about a poor match seller who's afraid to return home because she hasn't sold enough matches. Instead, the girl takes shelter in a corner and begins to light matches to keep warm.
As she does, her hopes and dreams flicker before her eyes, growing more powerful with each match, until, finally, she runs out of matches and falls into a deep, final sleep.
The boys, who lived in Bijie city's Qixingguan district, were children of busy farmers or migrant workers who had left for other cities. Four had dropped out of school.
In many ways, their case is typical of a generation of "left-behind children" - an estimated 58 million - who are byproducts of broken families, the country's uneven economic boom and demanding examination-centric school system.
Consequently, the deaths have triggered a wave of soul-searching in the mainland media over who bears the blame, what social factors may have played a role and what can be done to reduce the numbers of runaway children.
"We must ask here if the phenomenon of street children and their deaths are unique to Guizhou and if there're more runaway kids who will continue to wander in the street and continue to die elsewhere," Jxnews.com.cn wrote on Monday. "Who on earth should be responsible for such problems?"
But the government failed to explain exactly why the officials were disciplined and even sought to play down the deaths as accidental. In fact, the government only acknowledged the case after days of pressure from the online community.
That was in part due to former Bijie journalist Li Yuanlong, who posted photographs from the death scene and wrote about the boys' story soon after their bodies were found. As a result, Li, who had already spent two years in jail for writing too many "negative" stories, was detained by local security officials.
Subsequent media reports have only raised more questions about how the boys went unnoticed for so long. A report published on Wednesday by The Beijing News said the boys were all from Caqiangyan village, an impoverished community 25 kilometres from downtown Bijie that most adults have abandoned to find work.
Of course, millions more children are likely living a similar existence. A Global Times commentary published on Thursday cited a report by the 21st Century Education Research Institute that may explain some reasons for this.
The Beijing-based civic organisation found that dropout rates among rural primary pupils had by 2008 risen nearly 6 per cent higher than they were even in the late 1990s, a period notorious for mass dropouts at rural schools. It blamed a reckless closure of rural schools.
The number of rural schools has fallen 52 per cent in the past decade under a plan to improve education quality. The situation was even worse for small village-level schools, of which 60 per cent were closed during that same period.
Education commentator Xiong Bingqi told the Global Times that dropout rates among rural students could be even higher, as many children leave town with their parents and likely go uncounted.
A commentary in the Beijing Times on Wednesday said leaders must take the boys' deaths as a warning. "Otherwise, the fate of the five boys will be the destiny for other left-behind children," it said.