"What is a Shaolin master?"
Images of a monk, after many years of training, walking down a fire lit corridor, defending himself from the onslaught of one hundred and eight armed wooden dummies, and surviving, only to escape this mortal test by picking up a heavy cast iron pot filled with burning embers with the resulting painful branding of a tiger and a dragon on his forearms, is, well, bullshit. As far as I can honestly tell.
The monks of the Shaolin Temple laugh when I present this story to them, all giving me basically the same response, which goes something like this, "You Americans watch too much television." Some traditions dictate that this possibly fatal testing of a Shaolin monk before he became a master took place at the Shaolin Temple, some traditions claim that it took place at the southern temple at Fukien. Regardless, the present day monks, some of whom have studied Shaolin history extensively, refute the story as bunk.
That doesn't mean that a monk, who wanted to leave the Temple after his years of training, did not have to undergo any sort of testing. One's master would test a monk extensively prior to giving him permission to leave the Temple. (see Shi Xing Hong for more on this). A monk at the Temple is tested after a period of time, and if his performance, and his character, is acceptable, he is given a master's certificate. Remember, when the term "master" is used in these environments, it is used less to denote ability, and more to denote that one is a teacher.
Which brings up an interesting point? At the Temple, how does one denote one's gong fu ability, if they don't use colored belts or certificates to any large degree? From what I've noticed, one's ability is recognized over a period of time, and, no one, regardless of how good they are, goes to any length to demonstrate to others that one is better than them. The people that are good are just known to be good; the people that are bad, are helped. You have to think like a Chinese here.