Zou Yuan was from Laizhou, Shandong. He was addicted to gambling since his youth and led a wandering life. He was a righteous and honest man, excelled in martial arts, but was arrogant by nature, earning himself the nickname 'Forest-emerging dragon' (出林龙).
Zou Yuan was the uncle of Zou Run, and both of them gathered a bandit army on Dengyun Mountain, robbing the rich to feed the poor. They were also good friends with Sun Xin, Yang Lin, Deng Fei and Shi Yong. At that time, Song Jiang and the Liangshan heroes were locked in stalemate in the battle with the Zhu Family Village. Sun Li came up with a plan and decided to pretend to help the Zhus fight Liangshan, as the military instructor Luan Tingyu of the Zhu Family Village was once his fellow student. Zou Yuan and his nephew followed Sun Li to act as conspirators from within the Zhu Family Village, making a great contribution by helping the Liangshan heroes conquer the Zhu Family Village.