Content Considerations: Discussion and depictions of sexism/misogyny and classism.
Spoilers for The Story of Saiunkoku manga, particularly volumes 6-8 (roughly episodes 10-19 of the anime).
“You can’t expect young saplings to take root if you toss them off the land and into rushing water. They would simply wither and die, regardless of whatever promise they might have shown.”
Once upon a time, a poor little girl named Hong Shurei did not dream of marrying a prince. Instead, Shurei saw the struggles of the people around her and dreamed of becoming a civil servant—an impossible dream, for women were banned from public office. Yet when the law changed to allow her entry, Shurei soon learned her dream was not without its nightmares, for deep-seated prejudices loomed everywhere she looked, and these were not the sort of monsters one could draw a sword and slay.
Despite its fantastical shoujo setting, The Story of Saiunkoku is no traditional fairy tale, and Shurei’s journey is much closer to unjust reality than escapist fiction. This allows the series to explore systemic oppression, workplace harassment, and the importance of structural support, especially in systems that claim to be merit-based. Through its young, marginalized civil servants, Saiunkoku provides an intersectional critique of the “bootstrap” mentality, highlighting how oppression creates hurdles that often require more than just “hard work” to clear.
Written by the Victors: Linking history, fantasy, and modernity in fiction
Saiunkoku takes place in a fantastical version of medieval dynastic China, which gives it the opportunity to explore an early example of an allegedly meritocratic system: the civil service examinations. Put simply, men who wished to become public officials could take a series of exams to prove their knowledge and become members of the bureaucracy. Because the exam system relied on test scores rather than bloodlines and social connections, anyone could, in theory, become a scholar-official, regardless of their background.
The key phrase here is, of course, “in theory.” As historian Mark Cartwright explains:
As ever… candidates had to be male and reasonably well-educated to start off with. Peasant children who could not write or had no access to scholarly texts had no chance of bettering their position in society. Indeed, such were the demands of the exams that parents had to spend a good deal of money on private tutors to get their sons ready for the most important test of their lives.
Additionally, “persons from certain classes (and their immediate descendants)” were excluded entirely, including “watchmen, executioners, yamen torturers, labourers, detectives, jailors, coroners, play actors, slaves, beggars, boatpeople, scavengers, [and] musicians” (T.C. Lai).
In other words, while the civil service exam did give some people the opportunity to raise their socioeconomic status, the idea that “anyone could take it” is largely a myth. In reality, the exam system strongly favored the wealthy and outright excluded large portions of the population, particularly women and the so-called “disreputable” classes.
The general structure of this meritocracy likely sounds familiar to many readers, particularly those living in democracies with public education systems. While many modern societies have taken significant strides towards equity, the idea that hard work guarantees success (“the bootstrap mentality,” as it’s come to be called) is a persistent myth that can and does harm everyone, but especially those outside of the dominant social group.
The bootstrap mentality puts all the responsibility on individuals (or sometimes immediate families), which encourages communities to ignore systemic inequalities and instead blame the people who struggle for “just not trying hard enough.” We see this in various nations across the world, from the racial wealth gap in America to the persistent gender inequality in Japan.
Dynastic China’s flawed meritocracy makes it a prime setting for writers to explore modern-day oppression and the intersections of privilege and prejudice, blending history with fiction to critique contemporary ideals. This is exactly what Saiunkoku does, focusing largely on sexism and classism to explore the myth of meritocracy and argue for the importance of structural support to create a more equitable world.
Women and Children Last: Intersections of oppression in the land of Saiunkoku
The bureaucracy depicted in Saiunkoku is somewhat simplified from actual Chinese history (there’s no mention of banned social classes, for example), but it follows the same broad strokes: at the beginning of the series, only men can become officials, and the vast majority of them are from wealthy, well-connected families. Shortly after Emperor Ryuki changes the law to include women, the system sees a dramatic shake-up, as two of the highest-scoring candidates have unconventional backgrounds and experience significant workplace harassment as a result.
As the story’s protagonist, Shurei encounters the most direct and extreme bigotry in the form of both casual sexism and virulent misogyny. Her path is harder right from the start, as it’s not even legal for her to take the exam until she befriends the emperor and he decides to help her follow her “impossible dream” of becoming a civil servant.
However, to get the law to pass at all, the “Right of Women to Take the Civil Exam” bill places multiple restrictions on female candidates that don’t exist for male ones: they have to be from a noble family, receive a letter of recommendation from an aristocrat or high-ranking civil servant, and take a preliminary exam before the official one.
Shurei’s household is poor, but her family is one of the most powerful clans in Saiunkoku, which grants her connections most people (nevermind women) would not have. She is undeniably qualified, but it’s her one slice of privilege that ultimately makes her eligible. With rules so strict, it’s no wonder she’s the only woman who applies in the first year.
That said, Shurei can’t just pass the exam. No, she must pass within the top 20—and if she doesn’t, the bill will be revoked and women “lose the right to sit the exam.” As is often the case, for women to gain entry into a traditionally masculine field, they can’t be as skilled as a man; they have to be as skilled as the best men. Shurei is also expected to represent her entire gender, as if “woman” was a single being instead of a broad category.
It’s textbook systemic oppression and an unreasonable amount of pressure to place on someone, which is further complicated by dramatic intrigue and behind-the-scenes subterfuge (this is a shoujo fantasy, after all). Still, thanks to her own skill and determination combined with supportive tutors and study-buddies, she passes the exam with flying colors, ranking third overall.
And now that Shurei’s proven her worth, everybody will accept her, right?
Well, no. Saiunkoku recognizes that deep-seated prejudice is not so easily defeated. Shurei’s failure would have proven her incompetence (and by extension, the incompetence of All Women), but her success doesn’t prove she’s qualified. Some accuse her of cheating; others suggest the examiners “went easy on her” because they didn’t want their new bill to fail; others insist women don’t belong in the public sphere at all, regardless of their ability.
She’s subjected to both verbal and physical harassment from other civil servants, but she knows that if she complains about unfair treatment—or even shows too much emotion—they’ll dismiss her as “weak” and the situation will only get worse. As Shurei bites her tongue and soldiers on, the combination of physical and emotional exhaustion begins to wear on her, and the series doesn’t shy away from depicting (and validating) her pain and frustration.
Importantly, Shurei is not alone in her isolation, which makes an important difference both to her story and the series’ broader themes. While Saiunkoku’s focus is on its female protagonist and the workplace misogyny she endures, she’s not the only one who faces exclusion in the court. Her friend and fellow top-ranking candidate, Eigetsu, deals with his own combination of privilege and marginalization.
As a boy, Eigetsu has a leg up on Shurei, but that’s the only advantage he has. Eigetsu grew up in a poor rural community with few resources. It was only through pure chance that he was taken in by a doctor who could offer him an informal education. As the youngest-ever candidate to pass the exam, he’s brilliant and driven but also hopelessly out of his depth when it comes to navigating the politics and culture of the imperial court.
His humble origins already made him a target of derision, but when he accidentally offends the other officials because he doesn’t understand court etiquette, Eigetsu becomes nearly as despised as Shurei. The two receive the heaviest workloads and are publicly harassed, with high-ranking officials even going so far as to try to keep them from attending their first day of work.
As a pair, Shurei and Eigetsu demonstrate the widest gaps in Saiunkoku’s meritocracy, showing how sexism and classism create additional barriers to success. The two are motivated, thoughtful, intelligent, and hardworking—exactly the traits the bureaucracy claims to want from its young officials. But with the culture working against them, they’ll need more than their own bootstraps to succeed.
It Takes a Village: Structural support and the pressure of perfection
Narratives about systemic oppression (or any underdog story, really) tend to run on a spectrum between “rugged individualism” and “saviorism”—in other words, between “I did it all on my own and You Can Too (and if you can’t, there’s something wrong with you)” and “Person in Power gives the gift of success to a poor downtrodden waif.” To avoid both extremes, stories need to find a nuanced spot in the middle that acknowledges individual efforts and the need for community support, without falling too hard in one direction or the other. It’s a delicate tightrope, and one that Saiunkoku approaches with care.
Shurei and Eigetsu are fortunate to have influential allies in and out of the court, but they have to operate mostly in the background. This is partly personal, since neither Shurei nor Eigetsu want special treatment—Shurei in particular is adamantly opposed to it—but it’s also about navigating public perception. Overt support would be seen as favoritism and only worsen public opinion, especially for future female civil servants.
Saiunkoku understands the lie of the meritocracy: systemic inequality sets marginalized communities up to fail, but if they receive aid, their opponents will say they only succeeded because of that assistance. Almost everyone in the series is keenly aware of this and struggles to find ways to bridge the gap between reality and myth.
Instead of sweeping in to play defender, Shurei’s supporters work behind-the-scenes to level the playing field, removing or minimizing as many of the barriers as they can so Shurei and Eigetsu have a fighting chance to thrive on their own merits. This assistance is sometimes through small acts of kindness, such as providing midnight snacks or a shoulder to cry on, and sometimes through more dramatic means, like thwarting abduction attempts.
The series also addresses Shurei’s own internalized prejudices and somewhat self-destructive sense of pride. Afraid of being seen as “soft” or, worse, “The Token Woman,” she spends a good chunk of her time as a new civil servant refusing help from others and forcing herself not to show emotion. She also hesitates to wear the makeup gifted to her by her female mentor Kocho, not because she doesn’t like it but because “in an all-male setting…I thought wearing makeup would only make me more different.”
Shurei briefly falls into the trap of believing she has to always be perfect, strong, and mirror the behaviors of the dominant class in order to be taken seriously (in this case, as a woman in a traditionally male profession). But as time progresses, she realizes this won’t actually help her and that she “never wanted to be” a man in the first place. Once she does, she finally gives herself permission to be herself again, crying privately on Kocho’s shoulder and later donning the makeup memorably described as her “battle armor.”
Shurei does push back anytime someone tries to define her solely by her gender, but she also doesn’t deny her gender either. Through Kocho’s support, she finds the strength to fight “to be acknowledged and accepted for all that I am.” This also means accepting that she’s human and sometimes needs assistance from others, not as “a princess” but as a colleague with her own strengths and limitations, the same as everyone else.
While Shurei and Eigetsu both receive personal and professional support—first from those in power and then from some of their more open-minded peers—it’s vital to note that nobody does their jobs for them. Any time someone tries, they’re swiftly reminded that “rescuing” Shurei is neither what she wants nor needs. The role of those with power is to nurture, not control. What Shurei and Eigetsu need is people who will care for the soil so they can grow on their own time and efforts. Saiunkoku recognizes this delicate balance and works as hard as its characters to make it a reality.
A Journey of a Thousand Miles: Happy endings and real-world beginnings
As an audience member, Saiunkoku’s more grounded depiction of systemic prejudice can be painful or even frustrating to watch. This is a fantasy series, after all, and it’s tempting to want a wish-fulfillment solution where the emperor imprisons all the bigots or Shurei learns martial arts and starts kicking her harassers through walls.
However, that frustration is precisely what Saiunkoku wants to evoke, exploring supposedly fair systems and showing how unfair they really are for those outside the dominant social group. In doing so, it invites its audience to compare Saiunkoku’s alleged meritocracy to their own, and to consider its cast’s struggles with misogyny, classism, and other real-world marginalization. We’re asked to sympathize with Shurei’s fight as she struggles to figure out what it means to be a woman with a “man’s job” and how she can be true to herself while still pursuing her goals.
All that said, The Story of Saiunkoku is still, at its heart, an optimistic series directed at a teenage audience. Shurei (and Eigetsu, to a lesser extent) have to jump through hoops—Shurei even has to take another exam, this time in public, before people finally believe that she didn’t cheat or get a “free pass”—but the pair do eventually earn the court’s respect and go on to have successful careers.
Obviously, this isn’t always the case in the real world. Many of us don’t find the support networks we need to thrive, and even if we do there’s still a seemingly endless line of people waiting to tell us we’ll never be good enough. Perhaps Saiunkoku deserves some criticism for its too-rosy conclusion—or perhaps we can forgive it for wanting to give its young, largely female audience hope as they look to their own futures.
Still, the series’ willingness to depict the intersections of privilege and prejudice and point out the need for structural support is both uncommon and valuable, providing a far more thoughtful take on the usual, overly simplistic “bootstrap” narrative. It also serves as a useful reminder to its audience that there’s no shame in accepting a life preserver when the whole ocean wants to drown you.
Every story that goes against the dominant narrative moves us one step closer to changing that dominant narrative altogether. The Story of Saiunkoku is by no means the final step in that journey, but it’s a worthwhile piece all the same.