The 7-foot-6 center for the Houston Rockets played eight seasons in the NBA, but has missed 250 regular-season games over the past six years.
His career, including frequent appearances for the Chinese national team at Olympics and world championships, has included leg and foot injuries.
On Wednesday, a large reception hall at a hotel in the Pudong section of Shanghai — Yao's hometown — has been booked for what will likely be the country's media event of the year.
Hundreds of media have been accredited to attend the restricted event and are expected to arrive hours early to go through security checks. It is expected to be broadcast live in China and in many countries around the world.
Reports have been circulating for nearly two weeks that the 30-year-old star would retire, but the Rockets have not commented due to the NBA lockout and his management refused to confirm the reports. The NBA said it has not received official retirement paperwork from Yao.
Yao's contract expired after last season, and the Rockets said they were interested in re-signing him if he came back healthy. Yao said in April in China that his professional future depended on his recovery from a stress fracture in his left ankle.
Selected to the NBA All-Star team eight times after being the top overall pick in the 2002 draft, Yao averaged 19 points and 9.2 rebounds. More importantly, his impact expanded the NBA's influence in Asia into lucrative merchandise sales and TV ratings.
Yao had played six years with the Chinese national team before joining the Rockets, and was already a star in his home country.
He carried the Olympic torch through Tiananmen Square and his country's flag during the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
He also donated $2 million and set up a foundation to rebuild schools in the wake of the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan.
After his rookie season, Yao helped the Rockets reach the playoffs in the next two seasons.
Yao played in 77 games in the 2008-09 season, when Houston reach the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997.
But Yao broke his left foot in a postseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and underwent complex surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2009-10 season. He lasted only five games at the start of the 2010-11 season, before breaking his left ankle. He underwent surgery in January, and was lost again for the season.
"Tough, man, tough to see a great player and a great competitor like Yao Ming leave the game after being injured a few years," Durant said during a stop in the city of Tianjin, east of Beijing.
"He comes in, he works everyday. He sets such a good example for the players coming into the league."
AP Sports Writer Chris Duncan in Houston contributed to this report.