Video on social media captured the aftermath, showing injured people strewn across the concrete.
Officers identified the suspect as 54-year-old Yang Zanyun, a Chinese national living in the area. Yang had previously served prison sentences for arson and assault, local media reported.
After the crash, the attacker exited the SUV and stabbed a number of people, according to Rednet, a state media outlet in Hunan province.
Police said Thursday they are investigating the case and have yet to name a motive or mention terrorism.
In a country with strict gun-control laws, attacks on public places have been carried out in recent years with bombs, fires and knives by assailants who later stated they sought revenge on people they know or society at large.
Sociologists have pinned the violence on several exacerbating factors, including a lack of support for people with mental illness, a dysfunctional legal system that breeds feelings of injustice, and heavy pressure on young workers to succeed in an age of rising inequality.
The Hunan attack was trending on Chinese social media Thursday as users demanded answers.
“There are so many lunatics in the society now,” wrote commenter Benpaodeyueliangshaonv. “What should those who love life do?”
“You are tired of living yourself,” added user Wangjunquan. “Why come out and harm other people?”
Others suggested the crime was tied to grievances with the government.
“Go hit the leaders, don’t bully the ordinary people,” wrote user Haixingdianzishangwu.
In April, a 28-year-old attacker killed nine Chinese middle school students and injured 12 others with a knife outside their school in the northwestern town of Mizhi. The man told police he wanted revenge after experiencing bullying as a child.
Last year, 11 children between the ages of 3 and 6 died in a bus fire in the eastern province of Shandong after police said the driver, angry about pay cuts, started the blaze.
In 2013, an SUV drove through a crowd near Beijing’s Forbidden City, a popular destination for Chinese and foreign tourists, killing five people. Authorities blamed the violence on Muslim extremists from the Uighur ethnic minority group.