He hailed from Cixi 慈溪 (today in Zhejiang) and obtained his jinshi degree in 1169. He started his career as recorder (zhubu 主簿) in the district administration of Shengxian 嵊縣 and Fuyang 富陽, and was then promoted to the position of prefect of Leping 樂平. His standing as erudite (boshi 博士) in the Directorate of Education (guozijian 國子監) was ended by the factional strife of the Qingyuan reign-period (Qingyuan dangjin 慶元黨禁). Many years later he was again used for official positions, as prefect of Wenzhou 溫州, and academician (xueshi ) of the Hall for Treasuring the Heritage (Baomoge 寶謨閣). Yang bore the honorific title of Grand Master for Proper Service (zhengfeng dafu 正奉大夫).
Yang was an important disciple of Lu Jiuyuan 陸九淵 (1139-1193), the founder of the Neo-Confucian School of the Mind (xinxue 心學). Together with Yuan Xie 袁燮 (1144-1224), Shu Lin 舒璘 (1136-1198) and Shen Huan 沈煥 (1139-1191), he is known as one of the four masters of Yongshang (Yongshang si xiansheng 甬上四先生) or four masters of Siming (Siming si xiansheng 四明四先生).
Yang refined the teachings of Lu Jiuyuan and saw the Confucian Classics as an expression of the human mind (xin 心) which was, according to Neo-Confucian belief, endowed with innate knowledge about the universal principle (li 理, dao 道). Inspired by the universal principle – which was basically good – man was able to achieve a morally perfect unity with Heaven, earth, and the ten thousand beings in the cosmos. Some of his thoughts on morality were influenced by Buddhism, for instance, by equalizing the universal principle (and the human mind) with the Buddha (xin ji Fo 心是佛). The mind of each human comprised innate knowledge about the sense of the cosmos without having to ponder about it. Being good or "clear" by nature, the human mind might be maculated or "obscured" by conscience or intentions (yi 意). The ideal status of the mind was thus a return to unconsciousness or desirelessness (wuyi 毋意).
Yang's epistemology explained the physical or manifest existence of the ten thousand beings as a result of their virtual or "avataric" existence in the human heart.
The most important scholarly works of Yang Jian are the studies Yangshi yizhuan 楊氏易傳 and Cihu shizhuan 慈湖詩傳. His collected writings are called Cihu yishu 慈湖遺書.