He was born on April 27, 1635 in the Zhili province (now called Hebei) in China and spent his youth in poverty, after his father was taken into the Manchu army and never returned.
He died on September 30, 1704 in the same province.
Ideas of Yan Yuan were developed by his disciple Li Gong zh:李塨 (Yan-Li school). Yan's intellectual heritage was addressed by Wu Han in the 20th century. Wu has elaborated on the Yan's concept of relation between history and the present.