Yi Yuanji was born in Changsha, also known by his courtesy name Qingzhi. He initially devoted his time to painting flowers, birds, grasses, insects, and fruits and later he specifically focused on painting deer and apes. He traveled to Hunan and Hubei to observe the natural behaviors of beasts in the mountains. He even dug a pool to keep animals so that he could observe them when they were in motion or at rest. His works, as a result, featured lifelike creations. In 1064, i.e. the first year of the Zhiping period, Yi was summoned to the imperial court to paint flowers, stones, birds, and deer on standing screens.