Yuan was born in 1930 in Beijing, but his hometown is De'an County, Jiangxi Province. He was an expert in hybrid rice and academician of Chinese Academy of Engineering.
Yuan graduated from the Agriculture Department of Southwest Agriculture Institute in 1953 and then began his teaching career in Anjiang Agriculture School, Hunan Province. Since 1960, he has devoted himself to the research of hybrid rice. Through 12 years of hard work, he succeeded in cultivating "three-line hybrid rice". Between 1976 and 1997, the accumulative acreage of hybrid rice amounted to 3.2 billion mu, seeing an increased production of 300 billion kilograms of rice. In 1979, the technique for hybrid rice was introduced into the United States, the first case of intellectual property rights transfer in the history of new China. Later, Yuan developed a more advantageous two-line hybrid rice, which can produce 5-10 percent more of rice.
Yuan has won many awards and titles for his outstanding work, among which are the "State Preeminent Science and Technology Award", "National Model Worker" and "National Advanced Worker" as well as "Preeminent Inventor" conferred by the World Intellectual Property Organization. He is reputed as "Father of Hybrid Rice" by his colleagues working around the world.
Yuan's articles include "Key Techniques of Hybrid Rice's Seed Production" and "High Yielding and Practices and Theories on Cultivating Hybrid Rice". Yuan is also the editor-in-chief of the magazine Hybrid Rice.