The whole concept of obtaining a belt for your level is something fairly modern in Martial Arts. It came about as Martial Arts migrated to the West, providing teachers a way to visually track the progress of a student through their system.
It seems so odd these days for me to think about my early years in Martial Arts. I distinctly recall one night I had strongly debated with one of my teacher's teachers, Sifu Randy Williams. He was asking me when I would test for my first belt. I had shared, I wasn't sure if I would ever test. Studying for me was a joy simply to get out on the floor. I didn't care for rank or title.
But it wasn't until I started to aim for my black sash in Pai Yung Tai Chi under SiTaiGung Glenn C. Wilson that I really started to think about what it meant to be ranked. I still strongly believe that a belt alone doesn't prove anything. However, being a teacher position, I see first hand, just how much I have progressed and how much my sash means to me.
Watching students on the floor, I see all the errors and shortcomings of my own development. I see where I didn't understand, going through the motions without truly feeling the actions behind it. I also see all that is before me, the wisdom of those above my rank and how much I still can learn from them and how they can guide me.
The sash means so much more to me these days than simply how many forms you've learned or how much money you've paid to take the examine. There's a sense of awareness and growth that occurs which can be seen if a person is looking. There's also a sense of honor -- I am one of those who has been entrusted to help preserve a system and lineage for future generations.
Now, that isn't to say all sashes and belts mean the same. Some systems still simply go through the motions of promoting people on some schedule and using that as a catalyst to keep people paying them. While it sounds negative, it isn't complete a bad thing. For some people, that is all that they need to satisfy their wants and desires to study Martial Arts. Don't get me wrong, being promoted and receiving that next belt is one of life's great natural highs. It's a wonderful way to build self-esteem and help bring balance and focus to some students. But it's not for everyone.
I personally get extremely leery when I hear someone trying to use their title or rank to exemplify their skill. It becomes increasingly difficult as you look across systems. Each system has a different way of marking progression and the order of the colors vary. Some even use stripes to distinguish progress through a particular level. Thus, a purple sash in one style may not mean the same in another.
Will Martial Arts ever conform to a single ranking system? I highly doubt it. It doesn't serve a purpose. And for the true Martial Artist, at the end of the day, your level is dictated by what you do, not what you say.