Chen graduated from the Central Academy of Drama. His first notable role was "Puyi" (the last emperor of China) in the 1988 television series The Last Dynasty. Chen is best known internationally for playing the King of Qin (who became Qin Shi Huang later) in the 2002 film Hero, directed by Zhang Yimou. Within China, Chen is familiar to audiences for playing many different types of characters in films and television series of various genres.
In 1982, Chen married Du Xian (杜宪), a former news programme host from China Central Television who was forced to resign for expressing sympathy (dressing in black and speaking slowly) when she reported the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 on 4 June 1989. Their daughter, Chen Ge (陈格), was born in 1985.