Lìjiāng has been the homeland of the 300,000-odd Naxi (纳西; pronounced 'na-see', also spelt Nakhi and Nahi) minority for about the last 1400 years. The Naxi descend from ethnically Tibetan Qiang tribes and lived until recently in matrilineal families. Since local rulers were always male it wasn’t truly matriarchal, but women still seemed to run the show.
The Naxi matriarchs maintained their hold over the men with flexible arrangements for love affairs. The azhu (friend) system allowed a couple to become lovers without setting up joint residence. Both partners would continue to live in their respective homes; the boyfriend would spend the nights at his girlfriend’s house but return to live and work at his mother’s house during the day. Any children born to the couple belonged to the woman, who was responsible for bringing them up. The man provided support, but once the relationship was over, so was the support. Children lived with their mothers and no special effort was made to recognise paternity. Women inherited all property and disputes were adjudicated by female elders.
There are strong matriarchal influences in the Naxi language. Nouns enlarge their meaning when the word for ‘female’ is added; conversely, the addition of the word for ‘male’ will decrease the meaning. For example, ‘stone’ plus ‘female’ conveys the idea of a boulder; ‘stone’ plus ‘male’ conveys the idea of a pebble.