Born in China and taking French citizenship in 1973, he was elected to the Académie française in 2002, and was the first person of Asian origin to be a member of the Academy. He was the winner of the 1998 Prix Femina for Le Dit de Tianyi ("The Tale of Tianyi") (pub. Albin Michel, Paris, 1998).
When Cheng arrived in France in 1948, on a study grant, he did not speak a word of the language. He subsequently adapted quickly and profoundly. In his speech to the Académie française, he explained, "I became a Frenchman in law, mind and heart more than thirty years ago [...] especially from that moment when I resolutely went over to the French language, making it the weapon, or the soul, of my creative work. This language, how can I say everything that I owe to it? It is so intimately bound up with the way I live and my inner life that it has proved to be the emblem of my destiny." It took many years before he became a novelist. His first works were on Chinese poetry and painting, and in the late sixties and early seventies he worked closely with the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan on texts from the classical Chinese canon. These exchanges informed Lacan's late teaching on psychoanalytic interpretation. Later he began to write works of poetry himself, before finally turning to the writing of novels.