As with most public roles, ritual specialists (such as household Daoists or members of ritual associations) are male—or so it may at first seem. The few exceptions to the male monopoly—nuns performing public liturgy, unmarried daughters taking part in their father’s shawm band—only prove the rule. However, the role of women in ritual transpires to be substantial.
Ritual and religion
Ritual, much of it religious, remains the main cultural engine of folk communities.
Again, male domination is apparent—temple committees, household Daoists, funerary officiants, yinyang, and fengshui masters. Women are often said to be unable to represent the community in communicating with the gods—their exclusion is starkly revealed in rain ceremonies, where, considered polluted and inauspicious, females are strictly forbidden even to witness the rituals. 
Yet ironically, it may transpire to be through religious behaviour—seemingly a bastion of male hegemony—that women’s power is most efficacious. 
Some major female deities are worshipped—notably the Bodhisattva Guanyin and a host of local “Our Lady” (niangniang), “Granny” (nainai), and “old mother” (laomu) or “holy mother” (shengmu) deities—often promising fertility (healthy male births!). Though women are neither part of temple committees nor heads of household for life-cycle rituals, they may comprise a majority of worshippers and patrons. It is perhaps at temple fairs that their role can be discerned most strongly: they are major agents in temple life.
Further, women may be strongly represented in local cults, in which their role as ritual specialists is only slowly becoming apparent. Sectarian and Christian groups may have a mixed membership, including performers of vocal liturgy.
But it is as spirit mediums that I suspect women most commonly subvert male power. Amazingly widespread, both among the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese, they have begun to attract scholarly attention as a major element of folk religion;  and they invariably sing. Though there are male mediums, such as the self-mortifying mediums who skewer their cheeks and flagellate themselves in trance under the direction of Daoists at the temple fairs of south Fujian (Dean, Bored in heaven), in most areas female mediums seem to be in a considerable majority and may indeed possess local charisma. They often practise initially as healers for individuals, but this tends to overlap with public representation, as they instruct their clients (or their clients’ offspring) to donate to the temple of the god possessing them and organize group attendance at temple fairs, often involving ritual singing. This may be a significant area where women forge a public role for themselves, even taking a leading role (for more, see here).
In Yanggao, mediums (known here as “great immortals” daxian 大仙 or “masters” xiansheng 先生, irrespective of gender) are as common as everywhere else (cf. Ian Johnson, The souls of China, pp.238–43).
In 2003 we met Chang Xiuyun (b. c1956) in a village north of Yanggao county-town. Here I adapt Wu Fan’s original notes—which she made quite unprompted by her male teachers. As she observed, the account contains some contradictions; but it’s still a revealing story.
Now living in Yaozhuang nearby, she originally came from Ningxia. Illiterate, she has three children. People generally come to her when orthodox medicine has failed. She mainly helps people in her home village, seeing them on the hour, two each hour.
The position of medium and patient is determined individually by the immortal (xianjia 仙家) inhabiting the former, but generally she sits on the south side of the low table on the kang brick-bed, by the window, with the patient to the east. At her own home she has an altar to her immortal, who instructed her to use the room to the east for healing there, facing west onto the alley.
A glass of water is placed before the medium. Her immortal occupies her after “three sticks of incense”. Closing her eyes, she feels the pulse of her patient to determine the illness; then (the length of time is determined by seven or eight immortals conferring, usually for five minutes or so) she opens her eyes and begins to speak in a hoarse male voice.
In trance her voice is that of the immortal. In her regular life she neither speaks standard Chinese nor smokes. But through her, the immortal may speak in standard Chinese, and she smokes when her immortal occupies her. At first she would sweat and turn red, but after a year or so she got used to it.
She uses incense ash to heal them, a weekly course. She has to choose the ash herself—it won’t work if others do it. If the immortal can cure the illness, it only takes three days; the ash is just a further precaution. After the end of the session the patient has to return home to offer incense to the ghosts.
While in trance (so her older sister tells her) she sings pop songs and Shanxi bangzi opera melodies. Her own immortal, Li Huaming 李华明, came from Shijiazhuang, where there is a temple for him.
Her immortal once told her in a dream to write a placard (“god place” paiwei) for “Great General Peng Dehuai, Daoist immortal” (Daojia xianjia Peng Dehuai da jiangjun 道家仙家彭德怀大将军, Communist leader who became a thorn in the side of Chairman Mao following the Great Leap Backward) and to put a picture on the wall of him riding a horse. Being illiterate, she had to ask a literate villager (and a Buddhist) to write it for her. In that case she found herself singing songs from Hunan or Hubei, because Peng Dehuai came from the south.
She works on her own, and doesn’t take money, just telling her patients which temple to give money to if their illness is cured—if they don’t do so, they’ll be punished by illness again.
If the immortal can’t cure the patient, he will speak through Chang to tell the patient which hospital to go to—in Datong, Zhangjiakou, or even Beijing. If the illness is incurable, the immortal tells the patient’s companion to summon the children back to take care of them, accurately predicting the death date.
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Some of the mediums also take part in the amateur sectarian groups which are also popular. Of many such groups on the eve of Liberation (commonly known here as “charitable friends” shanyou 善友), two which have outlasted Maoist campaigns are the Bright Association (Minghui) and the Yellow Association (Huanghui) (my book, pp.44–5)—both voluntary intra- and inter-village networks. Whereas the all-male Yellow Association—at least here in Yanggao—used shengguan melodic instrumental music as well as vocal liturgy and percussion, the mixed-gender Bright Association only accompanies its vocal liturgy with percussion.
Over a couple of freezing days in December 2003 I attended an impressive two-day ritual of a sect in north Shanxi (see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 3).
They performed precious scrolls (baojuan) in the classic 24-chapter format, that are unique to the sect and not featured in any catalogue or library. Though the sect was among those earmarked for suppression in the 1950s, they were now keen to gain official recognition, and enjoyed a good local reputation—thanks partly to the recognized moral integrity of their leader.
The ritual has been commissioned in fulfillment of a vow, by a woman who finally managed to have a child; not herself a member of the sect, she prepares and helps present the offerings but attends the ritual only sporadically. Over thirty people, both men and women, take part, of whom a dozen or so come from the village in whose temple the ritual is being held. This is not a public temple fair but a private ritual; the temple is only open to ordinary worshippers for temple fairs, and is not open to them now. Unlike ordinary worshippers, the sectarians are expected to observe the five precepts (wujie). For rituals they don yellow robes. Unlike the setting for the precious scrolls in central Hebei, where during the rare performances of the small group of liturgists a large “audience” mills around offering incense, smoking, chatting, and admiring the ritual paintings, here all the sectarians take part devoutly in the recitation, singing the texts and melodies with great gusto—they evidently perform them frequently. See also here; and for an update, here.
 This introduction is largely based on my “Gender and music in local communities”, in Harris, Pease and Tan (eds), Gender in Chinese music, pp.26–40. See also Kang Xiaofei, “Women and the religious question in modern China“, in Goossaert, Kiely, and Lagerwey (eds), Modern Chinese religion II, albeit largely based on rather more literate sources.
 Note Xiao Mei 萧梅, “Huwu yujie qi ganlin: Xibei (Shaanbei) diqu qiyu yishi yu yinyue diaocha zongshu” 呼舞吁嗟祈甘霖: 西北 (陕北)地区祈雨仪式与音乐调查综述, in Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Xibei juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究·西北卷, ed. Cao Benye (Kunming: Yunnan renmin chubanshe, 2003, with DVD).
 See e.g. “Gender and music in local communities”, n.36.
 See ibid., n.40, and Xiao Mei’s chapter in the same volume, based on her lengthy article “Chang zai wulu shang” 唱在巫路上 [Singing on the journey of the medium], in Zhongguo chuantong minjian yishi yinyue yanjiu, Huanan juan 中国传统民间仪式音乐研究·华南卷 [Studies of Chinese folk ritual music, South China vols.], ed. Cao Benye (Shanghai: Shanghai yinyue xueyuan chubanshe, 2007, with DVD), vol.2, pp.328–494.