Western images of Mongols often depict horse-riding nomads, living in yurts, or tents, and following their herds of sheep, horses, and cattle over the grassy plains of central Asia. Like the American cowboy, Mongols embody the pastoral image of free-spirited people living in harmony with their animals and the environment. There is a grain of truth to this stereotype. Some Mongol people make their living tending herds of animals and moving with the seasons, a practice known as nomadic pastoralism. However, this image does not capture the diversity found among Mongol people. There are sedentary farmers raising corn, wheat, oats, chickens, and pigs. Still other Mongol people combine aspects of nomadic pastoralism with sedentary agriculture. One family may divide the tasks among different members, with some moving to the steppes and tending the family herds, while others stay on the farm to raise crops. There are also Mongol doctors, lawyers, politicians, and professors. Some Mongols live in large cities, trading in stocks and bonds on international markets and designing Web pages. In short Mongols are as varied as any peoples in the world today.

There are three primary means of determining Mongol identity. They are history, language (written and spoken), and religion. Starting in 1206 C.E., led by the great Chingis Khan, Mongol armies spread out over Asia. By 1275, under Chinggis's grandson Khubilai Khan, the Mongols had established the largest land-based empire in the history of the world, stretching from Korea to southern China, through central Asia and what is now Russia. Mongol rule was established in Persia (today Iran), and, for a brief time, Mongol armies occupied parts of Eastern Europe, near what is now Poland and Hungary.

As this empire expanded from its core area in Mongolia, it stationed armies in various places throughout Asia. The descendants of those forces now reside as far south as Yunnan (in southwestern China), as far north as Lake Baikal in Russia (the Buriats), as far west as southwestern Russia (the Kalmyks), Afghanistan (the Moghols) and Xinjiang (the Oirats), and of course, in the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region in China and Mongolia. Though these groups live thousands of miles apart, there is recognition of a common heritage going back to the thirteenth century. A common language also unites Mongols. All speak Mongolian, with minor linguistic differences, and use the same unique script. Written from top to bottom, left to right, the script was adapted in the thirteenth century from the Uighur script, when the expanding Mongol Empire needed a means to communicate. The People's Republic of Mongolia, what is now known as Mongolia, used the Cyrillic alphabet to write the Mongolian language while the country was under the influence of the Soviet Union. In recent times, however, attempts have been made to reintroduce the traditional script.

Religion is another unifying force for Mongol society. Shortly after conquering most of Asia in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Mongols were introduced to Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism. Monasteries were established to serve the religious needs of their communities, and to this day, Buddhist monasteries in Mongol communities continue to teach the holy scriptures by means of the Mongol script. For the 3.5 million Mongols living in China today, there is much in their culture with which to identify. History, language, and religion interact with other cultural practices, such as music and art, to form a rich tapestry.