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[Kim Seong-kon] What we wish for in the Year of the Dragon

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 3, 2024 - 05:38

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According to the Chinese zodiac, 2024 is the Year of the Dragon. In classical Western mythology, dragons are hideous monsters to be slain by valiant warriors. Thus, dragon-slaying was an initiation ritual for would-be heroes. For example, Beowulf, Siegfried and Tristan were among the famous dragon slayers of medieval and early modern legends.

In classical Chinese mythology, however, a dragon is a pious and auspicious creature that soars into the sky. A python has to wait a thousand years to become a dragon. Thus, no one is supposed to slay a dragon. A dragon is so strong that it is not easy to kill anyway. Perhaps that was why the famous Chinese martial arts novelist Jin Yong named the most powerful martial arts skill, “18 dragon subduing palms.”

The Chinese zodiac says that the dragon is a symbol of power, vigor and charm. Accordingly, the Year of the Dragon will bring authority, strength and strong leadership abilities. It will also bring progress and prosperity. In addition, the Year of the Dragon will be a dynamic year with new beginnings and fresh opportunities.

In the Year of the Dragon, therefore, we wish South Korea to soar into the sky just like a dragon that has just sloughed off its python’s skin and flown high into the air. Sloughing off your old skin is painful, and yet without going through that pain you cannot gain the new skin that would let you soar.

In his book full of profound insights on America, “Studies in Classic American Literature,” British writer D. H. Lawrence perceived America as a country that was becoming younger and younger because it had “sloughed the old European consciousness and grown a new skin underneath.” He said, “You can't have a new, easy skin before you have sloughed the old, tight skin.”

Perhaps he would have said the same thing to today’s South Korea. Indeed, in order to gain a gorgeous new skin, we need to slough off the old, degenerating skin. As Lawrence wrote, “Sometimes snakes can’t slough. They can’t burst their old skin. Then they go sick and die inside the old skin, and nobody ever sees the new pattern.”

What, in a nutshell, is the old skin that we need to slough off? Perhaps the chronic ideological warfare between the right wing and the left wing is a good example. Low-level factional skirmishes have degenerated our country for the past eight decades. It is time to put an end to it. Many Koreans are sick and tired of it and no longer want to see their politicians brawl.

Politicians have a solemn duty to serve their people, not their parties or voters from their hometowns. They should always remember that their salaries are paid for with the tax revenue taken from the Korean people. Politicians are also responsible for running the country well and maintaining a good relationship with other countries. They are not supposed to put their country in heavy debt or intentionally provoke a neighboring country for political gain. Moreover, they should not ruin the country through endless political scuffles.

Slandering political enemies and deceiving the public with fake news is another vice we should get rid of. That means that when the election season comes again, the Korean people must consider that the important thing is the future of South Korea, not some trivial scandals maliciously set up or staged by political enemies. Like a dragon flying high, we need to see the bigger picture with wider perspectives.

Another old skin we should slough is “extremism” in our society, such as extreme nationalism, extreme black-and-white perspectives, or extreme self-righteousness. Instead, we should embrace moderation, colorful diversity, and the modesty of saying “I may be wrong.” We should listen to other voices and other opinions. Pushed to the extreme, both the right and left become alike.

In his monumental novel, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Thomas Pynchon wrote that in we must transcend the gravity of our old consciousness that strongly and persistently pulls us down. Otherwise, we will be merely drawing a parabola or a deadly "gravity’s rainbow” and fall down like a cannonball destroying ourselves. Only by sloughing off our old skin, can we transcend the gravity of the old consciousness and reach the colorful rainbow.

In the Year of the Dragon, we wish to see no more wars or territorial disputes on Earth. Most of all, we wish South Korea to successfully slough off its old skin and soar up like an auspicious dragon, gaining the world’s awe and admiration. If we fail to do it, we may have to remain a python for another thousand years.

Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.