The majority of China's Naxi population, numbering just under 290,000, lives in Yunnan, and of this group, more than half reside in the Lijiang Naxi Autonomous County; the rest reside in Zhongdian, Ninglang, Yongsheng, and Deqin counties to the northwest. Though the Naxi's exact origins are not known, they are thought to be descendants of the ancient nomadic Tibetan Qiang tribes of Qinghai. Driven south by northern invaders, the Naxi have been resident in the Lijiang area for around 1,400 years.
The Naxi believe in a polytheistic religion called dongba (meaning "wise man" or "scripture reader"), which is a blend of Tibetan lamaism, Daoism, and shamanistic beliefs in various gods and spirits in nature. Dongba are also Naxi shamans, the most revered figures because they not only act as mediators between the present and the spirit world but are the only ones who can read, write, and interpret the approximately 1,400 pictographic characters that comprise the Naxi script created over 1,000 years ago.
The importance of the shaman notwithstanding, women play a dominant role in Naxi society, which is matrilineal in nature. Inheritance passes from the mother through the youngest daughter, and women control the purse strings, work the fields, and trade at markets. The men traditionally function as child-raisers, gardeners, and musicians. The revival in recent years of traditional Naxi music has helped keep alive an ancient art form that the Naxi have been practicing since before the days of Kublai Khan's invasion of Lijiang in the 13th century. Many of the songs, rarely heard anywhere else and some dating as far back as the Song and Tang dynasties, are played on rare and unusual musical instruments several hundred years old. Dongba music and dance performances are held every evening in the old town, and feature prominently as well in Naxi festivals, including the traditional Sanduo Festival held on the eighth day of the second lunar month to honor the god Sanduo, believed to be the great protector of the Naxi against a whole horde of pestilence and disasters.