The Western Xia occupied the area round the Hexi Corridor, a stretch of the Silk Road, the most important trade route between North China and Central Asia. They made significant achievements in literature, art, music, and architecture, which was characterized as "shining and sparkling". Their extensive stance among the other empires of the Liao, Song, and Jin was attributable to their effective military organizations that integrated cavalry, chariots, archery, shields, artillery (cannons carried on the back of camels), and amphibious troops for combat on land and water.
The full title of the Western Xia as named by their own state is 𗴂𗹭𗂧𘜶 reconstructed as /*phiow¹-bjij²-lhjij-lhjij²/ which translates as "Great State of White and Lofty" (大白高國), also named as 𗴂𗹭𘜶𗴲𗂧 "The Great Xia State of the White and the Lofty" (白高大夏國), or called "mjɨ-njaa" or "khjɨ-dwuu-lhjij" (萬祕國). The region was known to the Tanguts and the Tibetans as Minyak.
"Western Xia" is the literal translation of the state's Chinese name. It is derived from its location on the western side of the Yellow River, in contrast to the Liao (916–1125) and Jin (1115–1234) dynasties on its east and the Song in the southeast. The English term "Tangut" comes from the Mongolian name for the country, Tangghut (Tangɣud), believed to reflect the same word as "Dangxiang" (traditional Chinese: 党項) found in Chinese literature.
The Tanguts originally came from the Tibet-Qinghai region, but migrated eastward in the 650s under pressure from the Tibetans. By the time of the An Lushan Rebellion in the 750s they had become the primary local power in the Ordos region in northern Shaanxi. The Tanguts sometimes fell under direct administration by the Tang dynasty, under which they suffered greatly from the depredations of greedy Tang generals who stole their horses and even sons and daughters for profit. As a result, the Tanguts often cooperated with external powers such as the Uyghurs in opposing the Tang. The situation lasted until the 840s when the Tanguts rose in open revolt against the Tang, but the rebellion was suppressed. Eventually the Tang court was able to mollify the Tanguts by admonishing their frontier generals and replacing them with more disciplined ones.
In 881 the Tangut general Li Sigong was granted control of the Dingnan Jiedushi, also known as Xiasui, in modern Yulin, Shaanxi for assisting the Tang in suppressing the Huang Chao Rebellion (874–884). Li Sigong died in 886 and was succeeded by his brother Li Sijian. After the fall of Tang in 907, the rulers of Dingnan were granted honorary titles by the Later Liang. Li Sijian died in 908 and was succeeded by his son Li Yichang, who was murdered by his officer Gao Zongyi in 909. Gao Zongyi was himself murdered by soldiers of Dingnan and was replaced by a relative of Li Yichang, Li Renfu. Dingnan was attacked by Qi and Jin in 910, but was able to repel the invaders with the aid of Later Liang. Li Renfu died in 933 and was succeeded by his son Li Yichao. Under Li Yichao Dingnan successfully repelled an invasion by the Later Tang. Li Yichao died in 935 and was succeeded by his brother Li Yixing.