Traditional Chinese belief in the importance of education derived from the teachings of Confucius and other philosophers of the middle and late Zhou Dynasty (1045 BC–256 BC) periods, who held that man had a capacity for constructing a harmonious social order that would be realized only when he was both free from physical want and properly instructed. Despite his emphasis on social hierarchy, Confucius believed that almost all men had the same moral potential. He also accepted students without regard to their social status, and thus gave the Confucian educational tradition an egalitarian strand that it never completely lost.
The social peaking order was 士农工商 Scholars, farmers, craftsmen and merchants because 万般皆下品，唯有读书高 learning was above all.
科举 keju (605-1905), the 1,300 years long imperial examination was the most important vehicle for selecting bureaucrats, especially in the last two dynasties during which era only the officialdom could produce social prestige and wealth.
The syllabus of the exams limited to a few Confucian classics and their interpretations by earlier scholars, required rote learning. However, many western scholars believed the introductions of the civil service exam by British in 1855 and United States in 1883 were very probably the indirect result of respect for an institution that had been a feature of Chinese political and cultural life for so long.
Under the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties the examination system had overwhelming importance as the means for selection of officials. The social prestige of successful candidates at all levels was enormous, for a family or clan gained greatly in status and wealth when one of its members entered officialdom. In the Qing period particularly the demands of the system determined the content of education throughout China.
Ed. Hook, Brian. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China: Cambridge/New York, Cambrdige University Press, 1991, new edition, pg 111
None the less, from the 17th century onwards, the exam system was admired by Western observers. Indeed the introduction in 1855 of competitive written examinations for entry into the British civil service, and their adoption in 1883 for the United States service were very probably the indicted result of respect for an institution that had been a feature of Chinese political and cultural life for more than two millennia. But although in the course of the 19th century attempts had been made to reform and modernize the traditional system, over the final decades of the Qing it came to be realized that its classical syllabus could not be adapted to the need for modem [sic?] education. The jinshi examinations were held for the last time in 1904, to be abolished by edict in 1905.
秀才 xiucai – one who passed the imperial examination at the county level in the Ming and Qing Dynasties
举人 juren – a successful candidate in the imperial examinations at the provincial level in the Ming/Qing
进士 jinshi – a successful candidate in the highest imperial examinations