He is first mentioned in the books Guoyu 國語 and Zuozhuan 左傳 and also in the Chuci 楚辭 poems, as a wise ruler who did not inherit his throne to his own son, but ceded it (shanrang 禪讓) to the worthiest, Shun 舜.
His position in the hierarchy of tribal ancestors seemed not to have been very high, because the title Di Yao 帝堯 "Divine Ancestor Yao" only appears as late as in the book Shanhaijing 山海經. His deification took place under the influence of Confucians and Mohists that both venerated him as a sage-ruler with high moral standars.
Yet the veneration of him goes back to the text Yaodian 堯典 "Canon of Yao" that is part of the Classic Shangshu 尚書, where Yao is praised as an example of political virtuousness. Contrary to this image, the Zhushu jinian 竹書紀年 says that Yao incarcerated Shun and usurped his throne.
In the Shiben 世本 genealogies, Yao is mentioned as the third son of Di Ku 帝嚳, a great-grandson of the Yellow Emperor (Huang Di 黃帝). These genealogies also mention his tribal name (shi 氏) as Tao Tang 陶唐, Tang Yao 唐堯, or simply Tang 唐.
To complicate matters further, the Lüshi chunqiu 呂氏春秋 lists Tao Tang before the Yellow Emperor, while Yao is in the third position after the Yellow Emperor, so that it becomes clear that both can not be identical.
The famous history Shiji 史記 names him Tang Yao 唐堯. He is said to have been the son of Di Ku and a younger brother of Emperor Zhi 摯 and followed the latter to the throne, when Zhi abdicated in favour to him. His first residence was Jifang 冀方 (modern Tangxian 唐縣, Hebei), yet he moved later to Jinyang 晉陽 (modern Taiyuan 太原, Shanxi) and then to Pingyang 平陽 (modern Linfen 臨汾, Shanxi).
The apocryphal text Chunqiu hecheng tu 春秋合誠圖 (quoted in the history Yishi 繹史) says that Yao's mother Qingdu 慶都 was born in the wilderness of Douwei 斗維 in the far south. She was impregnated by a red dragon (chilong 赤龍) and gave birth to Yao in Danling 丹陵.
During the 70 years-long rule of Yao over an empire that covered the same area as modern China (as stated in the Hanfeizi 韩非子), wonderful animals came to light to express his wonderful and selfless virtue. Yao's own appearance was also very strange. He had eight-coloured eyebrows and deep eyeholes.
A story narrated in the book Lunheng 論衡 goes that once ten suns rose and threatened to burn the whole earth. Yao therepon took bow and arrows and shot down nine of the suns. This story has also been told in the Huainanzi 淮南子, where the wonderful archer was Yi 羿, who acted on the order of Yao.
Yao's ministers Xi 羲 and He 和 made calendric calculations and created the oldest Chinese calendar (see Xi He 羲和). Yao was married to Nü Huang 女皇, the daughter of Lord San Yi 散宜氏. She gave birth to Zhu Dan 丹朱, according to other legends to nine sons, but all of them proved morally not good enough to succeed him to the throne. He therefore asked the tribesleaders of the Four Summits (siyue 四岳, i.e. of the four regions) whom he should nominate as his successor, and they suggested to virtuous Shun.