He was the offspring of an eminent family of Runan whose members had since generations occupied highest post in the central government. During the reign of Emperor Ling 漢靈帝 (r. 167-188) he was appointed metropolitan commandant (sili xiaowei 司隷校尉). Yuan Shao conspired with general-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍) He Jin 何進 against the powerful eunuch clique. When their plot was discovered and He Jin was executed, Yuan Shao took action and massacred all the eunuchs in the imperial palace.
The mighty general Dong Zhuo 董卓 seized the Infant Emperor (Shaodi 少帝, r. 188-189) and began dominating the central government, Yuan Shao fled to Jizhou 冀州 (approx. modern Hebei). He was, nevertheless, appointed governor (taishou 太守) of the commandery of Bohai 渤海 in the far northwest. In 190 the provincial governors of eastern China formed an alliance against Dong Zhuo. Yuan Shao was selected highest commander of the rebels and assumed the title of chariot-and-horse general (cheji jiangjun 車騎將軍). Dong Zhuo was threatened by this alliance and decided to burn down the capital Luoyang 洛陽 and to transfer the court to the old capital Chang'an 長安 (modern Xi'an). Shortly after, Dong Zhuo was assassinated.
The alliance of the governors broke apart. Yuan Shao, as the most powerful, occupied the provinces of Jizhou, Qingzhou (approx. modern Shandong) and Bingzhou (approx. modern Shanxi). In 199 he furthermore conquered Youzhou 幽州 (approx. modern Beijing and Liaoning) from the hands of Gongsun Zan 公孫瓚. He thus controlled the greatest part of northern China. In such a position, he felt strong enough to challenge the new strong man of the central government, Cao Cao 曹操. He took careful preparations for this campaign and was advised by competent strategists like Guo Tu 郭圖 and Shen Pei 審配. In 200, the two armies finally met at Guandu 官渡 (modern Zhongmou 中牟, Henan) for decisive battle. Yuan Shao's army was not motivated, and he did not secure his logistics tracks, so that Cao Cao was able to burn down all grain reserves of Yuan Shao. Inspite of his numerical superiority, Yuan Shao lost the battle and withdrew. He died two years later on the sickbed.
Yuan Tan 袁譚, courtesy name Xiansi 顯思, was the oldest son of the powerful military leader Yuan Shao 袁紹 at the end of the Later Han period. His father did prefer his younger son Yuan Shang 袁尚 and therefore appointed Yuan Tan to the post of regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of Qingzhou 青州, for which post he had to leave the capital. When Yuan Shao died, his ministers Feng Ji 逢紀 and Shen Pei 審配 made Yuan Shang his successor in the office of supreme general. Yuan Tan thereupon attacked his half-brother, but was defeated and withdrew to Nanpi 南皮. Further pursued by the troops of his brother, he took refuge in the camp of the warlord Cao Cao 曹操, who forced Yuan Shang to resign. Shortly later Yuan Tan rebelled against Cao Cao but was defeated and killed by the potentate.
Yuan Shang 袁尚, courtesy name Xianfu 顯甫, was a younger son of the powerful military leader Yuan Shao 袁紹 at the end of the Later Han period. A the preferred son, he succeeded Yuan Shao in the office of supreme general after the latter's death in 202. Yet his older brother Yuan Tan 袁譚 challenged this succession and attacked him, with the support of the warlord Cao Cao 曹操 who defeated Yuan Shang. He fled to his older brother Yuan Xi 袁熙, who was regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of Youzhou 幽州. Unfortunately two generals of Youzhou, Jiao Chu 焦觸 and Zhang Nan 張南 rebelled, and forced Yuan Xi and Yuan Shang to flee eastwards to Liaodong that was controlled by Gongsun Kang 公孫康. The latter arrested the two brothers, executed them and sent their heads to Cao Cao.