Huan worked as an official under the administrations of Emperor Ai of Han (r. 27–1 BC), Wang Mang (r. AD 9–23), the Gengshi Emperor (r. 23–25), and Emperor Guangwu of Han (r. 25–57). Huan was a close associate of the court astronomer and mathematician Liu Xin, as well as the author and poet Yang Xiong.
In addition to his many rhapsodies, essays, and memorials, Huan's major work was the Xinlun (新論) or New Discussions, which was admired by Emperor Guangwu despite Huan Tan's besmirched reputation for having closely associated himself with the regime of the usurper Wang Mang. His Xinlun is also the earliest text to describe the trip hammer device powered by hydraulics (i.e., a waterwheel), which was used to pound and decorticate grain.
Huan's mode of philosophical thought belonged to an Old Text realist tradition. He drew explicitly on Legalism in his writings on government, saying that in certain historical epochs harsher punishments are needed. He was supported by other contemporaries such as the naturalist and mechanistic philosopher Wang Chong (27–c. 100), the latter who Crespigny states was probably heavily influenced by Huan Tan.
Huan Tan is reported by Yu Yingshi (b. 1930) to uphold self-contradictory views on immortality. On one hand, he is quoted to say that "the way of immortals" is a fabrication of the lovers for the strange; on the other, however, he was reported to admit the practice as genuine and efficient. Possible explanation lies in the fact that the Xinlun was a later compilation which might have confused his own statements with the quotations of his opponents.
- Crespigny, Rafe de (2007), A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23-220 AD), Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, ISBN 90-04-15605-4.
- Csikszentmihalyi, Mark (2006), Readings in Han Chinese Thought.
- Knechtges, David R. (2010), "Huan Tan", Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature: A Reference Guide, Pt. I, Leiden: Brill, pp. 390–96, ISBN 978-90-04-19127-3.
- Needham, Joseph (1986), Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 4: Physics and Physical Technology, Pt. II: Mechanical Engineering, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Yu, Yingshi (1965), "Life and Immortality in The Mind of Han China", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 25.
- Huan Tan in: Loewe, Michael, A Biographical Dictionary of the Qin, Former Han and Xin Periods (221 BC - AD 24), Leiden (Brill) 2000, ISBN 90-04-10364-3, pp. 164–165.
- "Hsin-Lun (New Treatise) and Other Writings by Huan T'an (43 B.C. - 28 A.D.)" Timoteus Pokora Michigan Papers in Chinese Studies NO.20 1975 Ann Arbor, Center for Chinese Studies The University of Michigan