He Hailed from a prestigious family in Liang province and was very familiar with the military strategy of the Xiongnu and Qiang nomads. During the Yellow Turbans Rebellion, he aided the famed Han General Huangfu Song in fighting the rebels. During this time, Yuan Shao was also expanding his influence amongst the Han military elites, and it was this time that Qu Yi was recruited under Yuan's wing.
Yuan Shao's success against Gongsun Zan owed largely to Qu Yi's prowess in Battle. In the Battle of Jieqiao, Qu took the high position of controlling the central army. During this battle, Qu slew Gongsun Zan's general Yan Gang and was a great asset to Yuan's army. Qu Yi was considered to be Yuan Shao's best general, even more so than Yan Liang and Wen Chou as many believed he does not only possess martial prowess but also great strategic insights. However, this would also be his downfall. It is said that Qu was arrogant and was purged by Yuan out of the later's jealously because his accomplishments exceed that of his lord's. Afterward, Qu's family escaped from Yuan, and changed their family name from Qú (麴) to Qū (曲, meaning injustice or crooked).
Qu Yi was highly regarded by many military leaders of his time. According to Sanguozhi, Cao Cao had stated that if he had recruited Qu Yi, he would have united the land (孤不早相得，天下不足慮。).
In Luo Guanzhong's historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Qu Yi was killed in the Battle of Jieqiao by Zhao Yun during the counterattack by Gongsun Zan's army. In reality, Zhao Yun and Qu Yi never had a chance to meet one another as Qu had already been executed by Yuan at that time. Qu Yi's importance in history was downplayed by Luo Guanzhong to enhance the importance of other characters in the story.