It is not known when Yao Silian was born, other than that it was during Chen Dynasty. His father Yao Cha was the minister of civil service affairs during Chen, and after Chen's destruction by rival Sui Dynasty in 589, Yao Cha moved his family from Wuxing to the Sui capital Daxing , successively serving as an advisor to Emperor Wen of Sui's crown prince Yang Yong and the secretary general of the archival bureau , carrying the title of Duke of Beijiang. During Yao Cha's life, he had begun to write the histories of Chen and its predecessor Liang Dynasty, but was unable to complete it before his death.
Yao Silian studied the ''Book of Han'' under his father when he was young. It was said that he had few desires other than to study. Prior to Chen's destruction, he served as the secretary to Chen Zhuang the Prince of Kuaiji, a son of Chen's last emperor Chen Shubao.
During Sui Dynasty
After Chen's destruction, Yao Silian served as a military advisor to Emperor Wen's son Yang Liang the Prince of Han. At some point, due to Yao Cha's death, he resigned to observe a mourning period. He thereafter served as a secretary at the government of Hejian Commandery . He requested permission from Emperor Wen's son and successor to continue writing the histories of Liang and Chen that Yao Cha had started, and Emperor Yang agreed. Emperor Yang further ordered him and another official, Cui Zujun , to lead a team of scholars in drafting regional maps and histories. He later served as a teacher of Emperor Yang's grandson the Prince of Dai.
By 617, the Sui state was engulfed by agrarian rebellions, and Emperor Yang was in Jiangdu , leaving Yang You nominally in charge of Chang'an, when the general the Duke of Tang started a rebellion and attacked Chang'an, claiming that his intent was to make Yang You emperor. When Chang'an fell in winter 617, it was said that Yang You's staff all fled, except for Yao Silian, who stayed with Yang You, and as Li Yuan's soldiers entered Yang You's mansion, yelled out sternly, "The Duke of Tang started his uprising in order to secure the imperial clan. You cannot be impolite to the Prince." The soldiers backed off. Li Yuan was impressed with Yao's dedication to Yang You, and while he still had Yang You seized by his own subordinates, allowed Yao to accompany Yang You to Shunyang Pavilion before leaving. People who witnessed the event commented, "It is said that kind people are also brave. This man is an example." Li Yuan soon declared Yang You emperor , but after receiving news in 618 that Emperor Yang had been killed in a coup at Jiangdu led by the general Yuwen Huaji, had Yang You yield the throne to him, establishing Tang Dynasty as its Emperor Gaozu.
During Tang Dynasty
After the founding of Tang Dynasty, Yao Silian served as a scholar at the mansion of Emperor Gaozu's son and leading general the Prince of Qin. Later, when Li Shimin was on a campaign against a rival agrarian rebel ruler, Xu Yuanlang the Prince of Lu, Li Shimin had some discussions with others about the events during Sui Dynasty, and he commented, "Yao Silian dared to stand up to swords to show his faithfulness, and this was difficult even in ancient days." At that time, Yao was not with him, but was at Luoyang. Li Shimin sent a messenger to Luoyang to award Yao with silk, stating, "I have just remembered your faithfulness and righteousness and I am now awarding you for them."
In 626, Li Shimin, then locked in an intense rivalry with his brother Li Jiancheng the Crown Prince, ambushed and killed Li Jiancheng and another brother who supported Li Jiancheng, Li Yuanji the Prince of Qi, at . He then effectively forced Emperor Gaozu to create him crown prince and then yield the throne to him . Yao became an imperial scholar at the institute Hongwen Pavilion . Emperor Taizong had him continue the compilation of the histories of Liang and Chen, under supervision by the Wei Zheng. Yao, taking in also commentaries that had been written by Xie Gui and Gu Yewang , completed the works in 636, and Emperor Taizong awarded him with silk and promoted him to be ''Tongzhi Sanqi Changshi'' , a senior advisor at the examination bureau of government . It was said that Yao was faithful and gave honest advice whenever needed. In 632, for example, there was an occasion when Emperor Taizong was about to visit the summer palace Jiucheng Palace , when Yao argued against it, opining that visiting secondary palaces was something that Qin Shi Huang and Emperor Wu of Han did, not what rulers who were even better regarded -- the legendary Emperor Yao, Emperor Shun, Yu the Great, and Tang of Shang did. Emperor Taizong, while citing that he was going to Jiucheng Palace to avoid an asthma attack, nevertheless awarded Yao with silk. In 635, he created Yao the Baron of Fengcheng. Yao died in 637 and was buried with honor, near the tomb of Emperor Taizong's wife Empress Zhangsun, where Emperor Taizong himself would eventually be buried. His grandson Yao Shu would later serve as a chancellor during the reign of Emperor Taizong's daughter-in-law Wu Zetian.