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[Kim Seong-kon] The vain dream of eternal power

Anyone who has seized political power wants to remain in power for good. Some have illusions that they can wield power forever, and others do whatever it takes not to lose power. Eventually, however, that dream of eternal power will be shattered and rulers will realize that power is evanescent in essence, after all. Indeed, no power on earth lasts forever.

Not realizing this basic fact, our arrogant political leaders frequently harangue that they could and would remain in power for at least two decades or even a century. However, this is nothing more than an illusion, a delusion of grandeur. Yet it is revealing. Indeed, no one who truly believes in democracy would utter such undemocratic remarks. When the people turn their backs on those politicians, they will learn the hard way that their daydream of eternal power will inevitably be debunked. Political power is always ephemeral. Intoxicated with fantasy, however, our politicians do not seem to realize it.

Recently on Netflix, I came across a 2020 Chinese fantasy movie, “The Yin-Yang Master: Dream of Eternity.” Set centuries ago, it tells the story of a fateful fight between a malevolent serpent demon trapped in the palace and the four yin-yang masters who try to stop the demon from rising again. Whenever the serpent demon is reborn, the yin-yang masters must kill it or trap the monster again within the Imperial City.

In the story, the serpent demon threatens to rise again. Qing Ming, a young yin-yang master, travels to the Imperial City to stop the demon from reappearing. In the palace, he meets the three other yin-yang masters. Together, they awaken the four stone guardians that protect the Imperial City. Qing Ming learns that the malicious dragon is sealed within the body of the empress, who has not appeared in public for a long time. He also learns that Princess Zhang Ping has not aged for the past 60 years, which is only possible for someone who is the vessel of the serpent demon. Thus, he suspects that the princess is in fact the empress. His suspicion turns out to be true.

In the Imperial City, Qing Ming notices the striking resemblance between the palace priest, He Shouyue, and his late master, Zhongxing. He Shouyue turns out to be the spirit guardian of Zhongxing, who fell in love with the princess but later parted with her nonetheless. When he left the princess, Zhongxing left his spirit guardian instead to console and protect her. Both He Shouyue and Princess Zhang Ping conspire to live and remain in power forever, using the serpent demon.

One intriguing thing in this fantasy movie is that the good princess and the evil serpent demon are, in fact, one. She has the serpent demon in her body, as she is its vessel. Like yin and yang, the princess and the serpent demon coexist, complementing and resisting each other. They are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they embody each other, with goodness outside and evil inside. When the evil serpent hides inside the princess, the country seems peaceful. When the serpent demon comes out, however, disasters occur and the kingdom crumbles.

In this mesmeric movie, the evil serpent demon seems to symbolize our political leaders’ wicked desire to wield power forever. In ordinary times, it hides inside of political leaders, thus it is invisible. In times of crisis, however, the demon comes out, threatening the people and oppressing the country ruthlessly.

At the end of the movie Qing Ming and Bo Ya, the two surviving yin-yang masters, succeed in destroying the serpent demon and restoring peace and prosperity. Yet it is only for the time being. Eventually, another serpent demon will rise again, feeding on the people’s dreads and desires.

Referring to the serpent demon they killed, Bo Ya tells Qing Ming, “As it feeds on the people’s fears and desires, it grows larger.” That means it is ultimately the people who nurture the malicious serpent demon that gives their political leaders the illusion of eternal power. If the people resist their fears and intemperate desires, the serpent demon cannot be born.

The riveting movie illuminates the deception behind our political leaders’ claim that they represent justice and fairness. Contrary to appearances, they could be malevolent serpent demons in disguise. Thus, as Qing Ming says, “Evil and good coexist in the world. Like yin and yang, complementing and resisting each other.” Bo Ya agrees and says, “Like humans and demons. Each with our own desires for good and evil. A few decades from now, the serpent will probably be reborn again.”

Political leaders should stop daydreaming about eternal power. They should know that they serve at the behest of the people, but only for a short time. Meanwhile, we should constantly remain alert, so the evil demon that gives the illusion of eternal power to our politicians cannot be reborn again. 

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.