The Tanguts are typically regarded by Chinese scholars to be synonymous with or at least related to the Qiang or Dangxiang (党項; Dǎngxiàng). Historically, "Qiang" was a collective term for the multiple ethnic groups who lived on the western borderlands of China. The name Tangut first appears in the Orkhon inscriptions of 735. In their own Tangut language, the Tanguts called themselves Mi-niah (Miñak). The Tanguts eventually migrated from their homeland in northeastern Tibet to the eastern Ordos region under pressure from the Tibetan Empire. By the time of the An Lushan Rebellion the Tanguts were the most dominant local power in the region. There they established the first and only Tangut state to have ever existed; Western Xia.
Tangut society was divided into two classes: the "Red Faced" and the "Black Headed". The Red Faced Tanguts were seen as commoners while the Black Headed Tanguts made up the elite priestly caste. Although Buddhism was extremely popular among the Tangut people, many Tangut herdsmen continued to practice a kind of shamanism known as Root West. The black caps worn by Root West shamans give the Black Headed caste its name. According to Tangut myth, the ancestor of the Black Headed Tanguts was a heavenly white crane, while the ancestor of the Red Faced Tanguts was a monkey. Sources describe Tanguts as being short, stocky, dark-skinned, with thick lips. They wore their hair in the Tufa style, shaved bald except for a long fringe of bangs that framed the face. Tangut kings went by the title of Wuzu.
According to sources in the Tangut language, the Tangut state known now as the Western Xia was named 𗴂𗹭𗂧𘜶 translated as "Great State of White and Lofty" (phôn¹ mbın² lhi̯ə tha²). Although the Chinese translation of this name (Chinese: 白高大國; pinyin: Báigāo Dàguó) was occasionally used in Tangut sources, the state was most commonly referred to as the "Great Xia" (大夏) in Chinese-language sources of the Tangut or as the "Xia State" (Chinese: 夏國) to the Song. In later historiography and in modern Chinese the Tangut state is referred to as the "Western Xia" (Xī Xià 西夏). The Mongols and other steppe tribes referred to the Tangut kingdom as "Qashi" or "Qashin", which was derived from the Middle Chinese name for the region the Tanguts controlled (Chinese: 河西).
In 881 the Tanguts assisted the Tang in suppressing the Huang Chao rebellion. As a reward the Tang granted the Tangut general Li Sigong the three prefectures of Xia, Sui, and Yin as hereditary titles under the Dingnan Jiedushi. From the Tanguts expanded their realm southwest towards their old homelands. In 1002 they conquered Ling Prefecture and set up their first capital there under the name of Xiping. By 1036 they had annexed the Guiyi Circuit and the Ganzhou Uyghur Kingdom, even pushing into Tibetan territory and conquering Xining. The state of Western Xia was proclaimed in 1038.
Since the Tangut's founder, Li Deming, was not a particularly conservative ruler, the Tangut people began to absorb the Chinese culture that surrounded them, but never lost their actual identity, as is proven by the vast amount of literature which survived the Tangut state itself.