Occupying the region for at least 3,000 to 4,000 years, the Bai are the second-largest minority group in Yunnan, as well as being one of the oldest. The 2000 census identified just over 1,800,000 individuals as Bai and speaking the Bai language, 80% of whom live in the Dali Bai Nationality Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. In Guizhou, the Bai can also be found in Bijie, and in Sichuan they live near Xichang. Throughout their history, the Bai have dominated by controlling the richest agricultural lands, either administering the region for others or ruling outright through a number of prominent families. Scattered throughout the Shaxi valley are sixteen Bai minority villages. The population of these villages ranges from a couple hundred to a few thousand in the main village of Sideng, with about 22,500 for the entire valley.
Shaxi retains the vestiges of a matriarchal society, but in the twenty first century, this now extends only as far as children taking the family name of their mother. The Bai—the "white"—revere the color, which they regard as noble and is the main color of their traditional dress. An unmarried girl always combs her hair into one pigtail, tied with a red string at its end, and then coils it over her head. In general, girls enjoy dressing up like beautiful camellia flowers on special occasions, and so it is hardly surprising that they are referred to not as 'miss' or 'young lady' but as 'jin hua' or 'golden flower'.
Considering their crossroads location, it is hardly surprising that the Bai have adopted practices from Han Chinese ancestor worship, as well as that of Indian Buddhism. In most villages, the cult of Guanyin, the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy, a female fertility deity, is combined with worship of the Benzhu or Village Lords. This was probably influenced by the Chenghuangmiao or Gods of the City temples, (common to every Han Chinese city until 1949) so that every village has its own local god, often a historical figure such as the first ancestor to settle this area, a great sage or a local hero. It is very common to find Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian and Benzhu temples or shrines within a single Bai village, or even within a single temple complex. The mythologies surrounding these cults are extremely rich, as every deified character has his own history and legends. Iconography is therefore extremely varied to reflect these many tales. Many are rough-hewn hemp and papier-mâché images, often to be found riding fearsome beasts such as dragons or tigers in order to show their strength. Their role is to protect the village and its population. Worship takes the form of Bai language chants, local song and dance, and traditional Bai foodstuffs made as offerings. At the doors of these temples, are warrior guardians, usually at the sides of the main entrance.
While Yunnan was an independent state, the Bai were enthusiastic in their adoption of Tantric Buddhism. This particular sub branch later became known as Azhali Buddhism, from the Sanskrit acarya, or "teacher."
In Shaxi the most popular form of temple is the 'kuixinge', many of which also incorporate performance stages. The kuixinge is devoted to a god of learning, a distinctive 'tutelary spirit' which the Bai traditionally hold in very high esteem. Perhaps the finest example of this is at the Old Temple Theater, outside the old town the village of Duanjiadeng, and restored as part of the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project.
In the more remote areas, there are still vestiges of Bai primitive animism. It is not difficult to find places where different gods are honored, such as the God of the Mountain, the God of the Crops, the God of the Hunt, the Dragon King or the Mother Goddess of the Dragon King. The Bai believe that spirits can cause illness, but can also protect them. In some of the villages there are female shamans, sometimes with enough power to enter into trance, who still play an important role in the spiritual life of Bai villages.