All of Zou Yan's writings were lost and are only known through quotations in early Chinese texts. The best information comes from his brief biography in the Records of the Grand Historian (1st century BC) by Sima Qian. It describes him as a polymath (philosopher, historian, politician, naturalist, geographer, astrologer) who came from the coastal state of Qi (present day Shandong), where he was a member of the state-sponsored Jixia Academy (稷下). Needham writes:
Zou Yan is commonly associated with Daoism and the origins of Chinese alchemy, going back to the (ca. 100 AD) Book of Han that calls him a fangshi (方士 [literally "technique master"] "alchemist; magician; exorcist; diviner"). Holmes Welch proposes the fangshi were among those whom Sima Qian described as "unable to practice" Zou Yan's arts, and says while Zou "gradually acquired alchemistical stature, he himself knew nothing of the art. It was probably developed by those of his followers who became interested in physical experimentation with the Five Elements."