There are fewer than 300,000 Naxi people, most living in Yunnan province in China's southwest. Unlike the Mongols, Tibetans, and Manchus, the Naxi were never a political force of international importance. From the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, they were a regionally dominant people. However, when the Mongol armies arrived in 1253, the Naxi were quick to submit to their authority. From that time onward, they ruled southwest China on behalf of whatever imperial dynasty was in power in Beijing, from the Yuan dynasty, through the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Today the Naxi mostly occupy high mountain valleys and the foothills to the Himalayan plateau. Although it is a tropical region, the altitude makes the seasons generally mild. Most Naxi are farmers, growing grain and vegetables in the valleys. Some tend livestock, such as yaks, goats, and sheep, in the mountain grasslands. The most important urban center of Naxi culture is Lijiang, a mid-sized town that is home to businesspeople, doctors, and artists. The Naxi language is distantly related to the Tibetan language. Naxi religious leaders, called Dongba, have long used a unique form of picture writing to record the stories and myths that are central to their religious teachings. This "script" is known as Dongba writing. A system of Roman letters has recently been developed for writing the Naxi language, providing a more efficient method. However, the Dongba script continues to be a powerful symbol of Naxi ethnicity. (See the Annals of Creation in Dongba Script at the beginning of this section.)