Sam Chung and the Water Demon
by J. Macgowan
Sam-chung was one of the most famous men in the history of the Buddhist
Church, and had distinguished himself by the earnestness and
self-denial with which he had entered on the pursuit of eternal life.
His mind had been greatly exercised and distressed at the pains and
sorrows which mankind were apparently doomed to endure. Even those,
however, terrible as they were, he could have managed to tolerate had
they not ended, in the case of every human being, in the crowning
calamity which comes upon all at the close of life.
Death was the great mystery which cast its shadow on every human being.
It invaded every home. The sage whose virtues and teachings were the
means of uplifting countless generations of men came under its great
law. Men of infamous and abandoned character seemed often to outlive
the more virtuous of their fellow-beings; but they too, when the gods
saw fit, were hurried off without any ceremony. Even the little ones,
who had never violated any of the laws of Heaven, came under this
universal scourge; and many of them, who had only just commenced to
live were driven out into the Land of Shadows by this mysterious force
which dominates all human life.
Accordingly Sam-Chung wanted to be freed from the power of death, so
that its shadow should never darken his life in the years to come.
After careful enquiry, and through friendly hints from men who, he had
reason to believe, were fairies in disguise and had been sent by the
Goddess of Mercy to help those who aspired after a higher life, he
learned that it was possible by the constant pursuit of virtue to
arrive at that stage of existence in which death would lose all its
power to injure, and men should become immortal. This boon of eternal
life could be won by every man or woman who was willing to pay the
price for so precious a gift. It could be gained by great self-denial,
by willingness to suffer, and especially by the exhibition of profound
love and sympathy for those who were in sorrow of any kind. It
appeared, indeed, that the one thing most imperatively demanded by the
gods from those who aspired to enter their ranks was that they should
be possessed of a divine compassion, and that their supreme object
should be the succouring of distressed humanity. Without this
compassion any personal sacrifice that might be made in the search for
immortality would be absolutely useless.
Sam-Chung was already conscious that he was a favourite of the gods,
for they had given him two companions, both with supernatural powers,
to enable him to contend against the cunning schemes of the evil
spirits, who are ever planning how to thwart and destroy those whose
hearts are set upon higher things.
One day, accompanied by Chiau and Chu, the two attendants commissioned
by the Goddess of Mercy to attend upon him, Sam-Chung started on his
long journey for the famous Tien-ho river, to cross which is the
ambition of every pilgrim on his way to the land of the Immortals.
They endured many weeks of painful travelling over high mountains and
through deep valleys which lay in constant shadow, and across sandy
deserts where men perished of thirst or were struck down by the
scorching heat of the sun, before they met any of the infernal foes
that they expected to be lying in wait for them.
Weary and footsore, they at last arrived one evening on the shores of
the mighty Tien-ho, just as the sun was setting. The glory of the
clouds in the west streamed on to the waters of the river, and made
them sparkle with a beauty which seemed to our wearied travellers to
transform them into something more than earthly. The river here was so
wide that it looked like an inland sea. There was no sign of land on
the distant horizon, nothing but one interminable vista of waters,
stretching away as far as the eye could reach.
One thing, however, greatly disappointed Sam-Chung and his companions,
and that was the absence of boats. They had planned to engage one, and
by travelling across the river during the night, they hoped to hurry on
their way and at the same time to rest and refresh themselves after the
fatigues they had been compelled to endure on their long land journey.
It now became a very serious question with them where they were to
spend the night. There was no sign of any human habitation round
about. There was the sandy beach along which they were walking, and
there was the wide expanse of the river, on which the evening mists
were slowly gathering; but no appearance of life. Just as they were
wondering what course they should pursue, the faint sound of some
musical instruments came floating on the air and caught their ear.
Hastening forward in the direction from which the music came, they
ascended a piece of rising ground, from the top of which they were
delighted to see a village nestling on the hillside, and a small temple
standing on the very margin of the river.
With hearts overjoyed at the prospect of gaining some place where they
could lodge for the night, they hurried forward to the hamlet in front
of them. As they drew nearer, the sounds of music became louder and
more distinct. They concluded that some festival was being observed,
or that some happy gathering amongst the people had thrown them all
into a holiday mood. Entering the village, they made their way to a
house which stood out prominently from the rest, and which was better
built than any others they could see. Besides, it was the one from
which the music issued, and around its doors was gathered a number of
people who had evidently been attending some feast inside.
As the three travellers came up to the door, a venerable-looking old
man came out to meet them. Seeing that they were strangers, he
courteously invited them to enter; and on Sam-Chung asking whether they
could be entertained for the night, he assured them that there was
ample room for them in the house, and that he gladly welcomed them to
be his guests for as long as it was their pleasure to remain.
"In the meanwhile you must come in," he said, "and have some food, for
you must be tired and hungry after travelling so far, and the tables
are still covered with the good things which were prepared for the
After they had finished their meal, they began to talk to the old
gentleman who was so kindly entertaining them. They were greatly
pleased with his courtesy and with the hearty hospitality which he had
pressed upon them. They noticed, however, that he was very
absent-minded, and looked as if some unpleasant thought lay heavy on
"May I ask," said Sam-Chung, "what was the reason for the great
gathering here to-day? There is no festival in the Chinese calendar
falling on this date, so I thought I would take the liberty of
enquiring what occasion you were really commemorating."
"We were not commemorating anything," the old man replied with a grave
face. "It was really a funeral service for two of my grand-children,
who, though they are not yet dead, will certainly disappear out of this
life before many hours have passed."
"But how can such a ceremony be performed over persons who are still
alive?" asked Sam-Chung with a look of wonder in his face.
"When I have explained the circumstances to you, you will then be no
longer surprised at this unusual service," replied the old man.
"You must know," he continued, "that this region is under the control
of a Demon of a most cruel and bloodthirsty disposition. He is not
like the ordinary spirits, whose images are enshrined in our temples,
and whose main aim is to protect and guard their worshippers. This one
has no love for mankind, but on the contrary the bitterest hatred, and
his whole life seems to be occupied in scheming how he may inflict
sorrow and disaster on them. His greatest cruelty is to insist that
every year just about this time two children, one a boy and the other a
girl, shall be conveyed to his temple by the river side to be devoured
by him. Many attempts have been made to resist this barbarous demand,
but they have only resulted in increased suffering to those who have
dared to oppose him. The consequence is that the people submit to this
cruel murder of their children, though many a heart is broken at the
loss of those dearest to them."
"But is there any system by which the unfortunate people may get to
know when this terrible sacrifice is going to be demanded from them?"
"Oh yes," replied the man. "The families are taken in rotation, and
when each one's turn comes round, their children are prepared for the
sacrifice. Moreover, that there may be no mistake, the Demon himself
appears in the home a few days before, and gives a threatening command
to have the victims ready on such a date. Only the day before
yesterday, this summons came to us to have our children ready by
to-morrow morning at break of day. That is why we had a feast to-day,
and performed the funeral rites for the dead, so that their spirits may
not be held under the control of this merciless Damon, but may in time
be permitted to issue from the Land of Shadows, and be born again under
happier circumstances into this world, which they are leaving under
such tragic circumstances."
"But what is the Demon like?" enquired Sam-Chung.
"Oh, no one can ever tell what he is like," said the man. "He has no
bodily form that one can look upon. His presence is known by a strong
blast of wind which fills the place with a peculiar odour, and with an
influence so subtle that you feel yourself within the grip of a
powerful force, and instinctively bow your head as though you were in
the presence of a being who could destroy you in a moment were he so
"One more question and I have finished," said Sam-Chung. "Where did
this Demon come from, and how is it that he has acquired such an
overmastering supremacy over the lives of men, that he seems able to
defy even Heaven itself, and all the great hosts of kindly gods who are
working for the salvation of mankind?"
"This Demon," the man replied, "was once an inhabitant of the Western
Heaven, and under the direct control of the Goddess of Mercy. He must,
however, have been filled with evil devices and fiendish instincts from
the very beginning, for he seized the first opportunity to escape to
earth, and to take up his residence in the grottoes and caverns that
lie deep down beneath the waters of the Tien-ho. Other spirits almost
as bad as himself have also taken up their abode there, and they
combine their forces to bring calamity and disaster upon the people of
Sam-Chung, whose heart was filled with the tenderest feelings of
compassion for all living things, so much so that his name was a
familiar one even amongst the Immortals in the far-off Western Heaven,
felt himself stirred by a mighty indignation when he thought of how
innocent childhood had been sacrificed to minister to the unnatural
passion of this depraved Demon. Chiau and Chu were as profoundly
indignant as he, and a serious consultation ensued as to the best
methods to be adopted to save the little ones who were doomed to
destruction on the morrow, and at the same time to break the monster's
rule so that it should cease for ever.
Chiau, who was the more daring of the two whom I the goddess had
deputed to protect Sam-Chung, at length cried out with flashing eyes,
"I will personate the boy, Chu shall act the girl, and together we will
fight the Demon and overthrow and kill him, and so deliver the people
from his dreadful tyranny."
Turning to the old man, he said, "Bring the children here so that we
may see them, and make our plans so perfect that the Demon with all his
cunning will not be able to detect or frustrate them."
In a few moments the little ones were led in by their grandfather. The
boy was seven and the girl was one year older. They were both of them
nervous and shy, and clung timidly to the old man as if for protection.
They were very interesting-looking children. The boy was a proud,
brave-spirited little fellow, as one could see by the poise of his head
as he gazed at the strangers. If anything could be predicted from his
looks, he would one day turn out to be a man of great power, for he had
in his youthful face all the signs which promise a life out of the
common. The girl was a shy little thing, with her hair done up in a
childlike fashion that well became her. She was a dainty little
mortal. Her eyes were almond-shaped, and with the coyness of her sex
she kept shooting out glances from the corners of them at the three men
who were looking at her. Her cheeks were pale, with just a suspicion
of colour painted into them by the deft hand of nature; whilst her lips
had been touched with the faintest dash of carmine, evidently just a
moment ago, before she left her mother's side.
"Now, my boy," said Chiau to the little fellow, "keep your eyes fixed
on me, and never take them from me for a moment; and you, little
sister," addressing the girl, "do the same to the man next to me, and
you will see something that will make you both laugh."
The eyes of them both were at once riveted on the two men, and a look
of amazement slowly crept into their faces. And no wonder, for as they
gazed they saw the two men rapidly changing, and becoming smaller and
smaller, until they were the exact size and image of themselves. In
their features and dress, and in every minute detail they were the
precise pattern of the children, who with staring eyes were held
spellbound by the magic change which had taken place in front of them.
"Now," said Chiau to the old gentleman, "the transformation is
complete. Take the children away and hide them in the remotest and
most inaccessible room that you have in your house. Let them be seen
by no chattering woman or servant who might divulge our secret, so that
in some way or other it might reach the ears of the Demon, and put him
on his guard. Remember that from this moment these little ones are not
supposed to exist, but that we are your grand-children who are to be
taken to the temple to-morrow morning at break of day."
Just as the eastern sky showed the first touch of colour, two
sedan-chairs were brought up to the door to carry the two victims away
to be devoured by the Demon. A few frightened-looking neighbours
peered through the gloom to catch a last glimpse of the children, but
not one of them had the least suspicion that the boy and girl were
really fairies who were about to wage a deadly battle with the Demon in
order to deliver them from the curse under which they lived.
No sooner had the children been put into the temple, where a dim
rush-light did but serve to disclose the gloom, and the doors had been
closed with a bang, than the chair-bearers rushed away in fear for
their very lives.
An instant afterwards a hideous, gigantic form emerged from an inner
room and advanced towards the children. The Demon was surprised,
however, to find that on this occasion the little victims did not
exhibit any signs of alarm, as had always been the case hitherto, but
seemed to be calmly awaiting his approach. There was no symptom of
fear about them, and not a cry of terror broke from their lips; but
with a fearless and composed mien they gazed upon him as he advanced.
Hesitating for a moment, as if to measure the foe which he began to
fear might lie concealed beneath the figures of the boy and girl before
him, the Demon's great fiery eyes began to flash with deadly passion as
he saw the two little ones gradually expand in size, until they were
transformed into beings as powerful and as mighty as himself. He knew
at once that he had been outwitted, and that he must now battle for his
very life; so, drawing a sword which had always stood him in good
stead, he rushed upon the two who faced him so calmly and with such
apparent confidence in themselves.
Chiau and Chu were all ready for the fray, and with weapons firmly
gripped and with hearts made strong by the consciousness of the justice
of their cause, they awaited the onslaught of the Demon.
And what a battle it was that then ensued in the dim and shadowy
temple! It was a conflict of great and deadly significance, waged on
one side for the deliverance of helpless childhood, and on the other
for the basest schemes that the spirits of evil could devise. It was a
battle royal, in which no quarter was either asked or given. The clash
of weapons, and sounds unfamiliar to the human ear, and groans and
cries which seemed to come from a lost soul, filled the temple with
their hideous uproar.
At last the Demon, who seemed to have been grievously wounded, though
by his magic art he had caused his wounds to be instantly healed, began
to see that the day was going against him. One more mighty lunge with
his broadsword, and one more furious onset, and his craven heart failed
him. With a cry of despair he fled from the temple, and plunged
headlong into the river flowing by its walls.
Great were the rejoicings when Chiau and Chu returned to report to
Sam-Chung the glorious victory they had gained over the Demon.
Laughter and rejoicing were heard in every home, and men and women
assembled in front of their doors and at the corners of the narrow
alley-ways to congratulate each other on the great deliverance which
that day had come to them and to their children. The dread of the
Demon had already vanished, and a feeling of freedom so inspired the
men of the village that as if by a common impulse, they rushed
impetuously down to where the temple stood, and in the course of a few
hours every vestige of it had disappeared beneath the waters into which
the Demon had plunged.
After his great defeat the baffled spirit made his way to the grotto
beneath the waters, where he and the other demons had taken up their
abode. A general council was called to devise plans to wipe out the
disgrace which had been sustained, and to regain the power that had
slipped from the Demon's grasp. They wished also to visit Sam-Chung
with condign punishment which would render him helpless for the future.
"We must capture him," said one wicked-looking imp, who always acted as
counsellor to the rest. "I have been told that to devour some of his
flesh would ensure the prolongation of life for more than a thousand
The suggestion to seize Sam-Chung was unanimously accepted as a very
inspiration of genius, and the precise measures which were to be
adopted in order to capture him were agreed to after a long discussion.
On the very next morning, a most violent snowstorm set in, so that the
face of the river and the hills all round about, and the very heavens
themselves were lost in the blinding snow-drifts that flew before the
gale. Gradually the cold became so intense that the Ice King laid his
grip upon the waters of the Tien-ho, and turned the flowing stream into
a crystal highway, along which men might travel with ease and safety.
Such a sight had never been seen before by any of the people who lived
upon its banks, and many were the speculations as to what such a
phenomenon might mean to the welfare of the people of the region. It
never occurred to any one that this great snow-storm which had turned
into ice a river that had never been known to freeze before, was all
the work of demons determined on the destruction of Sam-Chung.
Next day the storm had passed, but the river was one mass of ice which
gleamed and glistened in the morning rays. Much to the astonishment of
Sam-Chung and his two companions, they caught sight of a number of
people, who appeared to be merchants, moving about on the bank of the
river, together with several mules laden with merchandise. The whole
party seemed intent on their preparations for crossing the river, which
they were observed to test in various places to make sure that it was
strong enough to bear their weight. This they seemed satisfied about,
for in a short time the men and animals set forward on their journey
across the ice.
Sam-Chung immediately insisted upon following their example, though the
plan was vigorously opposed by the villagers, who predicted all kinds
of dangers if he entered on such an uncertain and hazardous enterprise.
Being exceedingly anxious to proceed on his journey, however, and
seeing no prospect of doing so if he did not take advantage of the
present remarkable condition of the river, he hastened to follow in the
footsteps of the merchants, who by this time had already advanced some
distance on the ice.
He would have been less anxious to enter on this perilous course, had
he known that the innocent-looking traders who preceded him were every
one of them demons who had changed themselves into the semblance of men
in order to lure him to his destruction.
Sam-Chung and his companions had not proceeded more than five or six
miles, when ominous symptoms of coming disaster began to manifest
themselves. The extreme cold in the air suddenly ceased, and a warm
south wind began to blow. The surface of the ice lost its hardness.
Streamlets of water trickled here and there, forming great pools which
made walking exceedingly difficult.
Chiau, whose mind was a very acute and intelligent one, became
terrified at these alarming symptoms of danger, especially as the ice
began to crack, and loud and prolonged reports reached them from every
direction. Another most suspicious thing was the sudden disappearance
of the company of merchants, whom they had all along kept well in
sight. There was something wrong, he was fully convinced, and so with
all his wits about him, he kept himself alert for any contingency. It
was well that he did this, for before they had proceeded another mile,
the ice began to grow thinner, and before they could retreat there was
a sudden crash and all three were precipitated into the water.
Hardly had Chiau's feet touched the river, than with a superhuman
effort he made a spring into the air, and was soon flying with
incredible speed in the direction of the Western Heaven, to invoke the
aid of the Goddess of Mercy to deliver Sam-Chung from the hands of an
enemy who would show him no quarter.
In the meanwhile Sam-Chung and Chu were borne swiftly by the demons,
who were eagerly awaiting their immersion in the water, to the great
cave that lay deep down at the bottom of the mighty river. Chu, being
an immortal and a special messenger of the Goddess, defied all the arts
of the evil spirits to injure him, so that all they could do was to
imprison him in one of the inner grottoes and station a guard over him
to prevent his escape. Sam-Chung, however, was doomed to death, and
the Demon, in revenge for the disgrace he had brought upon him, and in
the hope of prolonging his own life by a thousand years, decided that
on the morrow he would feast upon his flesh. But he made his plans
without taking into consideration the fact that Sam-Chung was an
especial favourite with the Goddess.
During the night a tremendous commotion occurred. The waters of the
river fled in every direction as before the blast of a hurricane, and
the caverns where the demons were assembled were illuminated with a
light so brilliant that their eyes became dazzled, and for a time were
blinded by the sudden blaze that flashed from every corner. Screaming
with terror, they fled in all directions. Only one remained, and that
was the fierce spirit who had wrought such sorrow amongst the people of
the land near by. He too would have disappeared with the rest, had not
some supernatural power chained him to the spot where he stood.
Soon the noble figure of the Goddess of Mercy appeared, accompanied by
a splendid train of Fairies who hovered round her to do her bidding.
Her first act was to release Sam-Chung, who lay bound ready for his
death, which but for her interposition would have taken place within a
few hours. He and his two companions were entrusted to the care of a
chosen number of her followers, and conveyed with all speed across the
The Goddess then gave a command to some who stood near her person, and
in a moment, as if by a flash of lightning, the cowering, terrified
Demon had vanished, carried away to be confined in one of the dungeons
where persistent haters of mankind are kept imprisoned, until their
hearts are changed by some noble sentiment of compassion and the
Goddess sees that they are once more fit for liberty.
And then the lights died out, and the sounds of fairy voices ceased.
The waters of the river, which had been under a divine spell, returned
to their course, and the Goddess with her magnificent train of
beneficent spirits departed to her kingdom in the far-off Western