There was a discussion on LinkedIn in 2013 April asking why kung fu school were adopting the notion of colored belts or the more popular colored sash system. I’m generally of the opinion that belts and sashes are used to hold up your trousers or to serve as an improvised weapon if it ever comes to that, but I can’t deny that colored belts and so forth are a thing in many martial arts schools. Here was my response:
In kung fu, there is a saying, “When you have climbed a high mountain, don’t think it is the highest mountain, there may be another mountain higher than this one; when you are a good fighter, don’t imagine you are the best fighter, there may be another fighter better than you.” There is also a saying that my fencing master taught me, “The best fencer in the world has nothing to fear from the second-best fencer, but everything to fear from the worst.”
There is also a widespread belief in most of the older generation kung fu masters and those in their lineages that a sash or belt is just to hold up one’s trousers. I’ve only been in one kung fu school where colored sashes were used, and the master told me that he used colored sashes because the students in the local area expected/needed them as a gauge of progress.
I will say that, especially in an international organization, it is quite a useful tool for a visiting instructor to have an immediate idea of what skill level the local students have, and for students to know “how far along” they are towards their intended result (ideally, mastery of the art and becoming a better person by using their chosen art as their vehicle). When the belt color (or whatever other “badge”) is turned from a waystation into a destination in and of itself, I guess that’s when folks get attached and put their pride into that item rather than the skills behind it.