Zhan was born in Fuzhou, Fujian Province in the 1840s, though reports of the year vary from 1841 to 1847. His height was claimed to be over 8 feet (2.4 m), but there are no authoritative records. He left China in 1865 to travel to London where he appeared on stage, later travelling around Europe, and to the US and Australia as "Chang the Chinese Giant". Zhan received a good education in various countries, and developed a good understanding of ten languages. In America, he earned a salary of $500 a month.
Kin Foo, the Chinese wife who accompanied Zhan from China, died in 1871, and Zhan later married Catherine Santley, a Liverpudlian whom he met in Sydney, Australia. They had two children: Edwin, born in 1877 in Shanghai, and Ernest, born in 1879 in Paris.
In 1878, Zhan retired from the stage and settled in Bournemouth, where he opened a Chinese teahouse and a store selling Chinese imports.
Zhan died in Bournemouth in 1893, four months after his wife, aged around 50. His coffin was 8 feet 6 inches (2.6 m) long.
- Sophie Couchman (26 March 2003). "Chang Woo Gow ('Chang the Chinese Giant') (1840s - 1893)". Chinese-Australian Historical Images in Australia. Chinese Museum. Retrieved 6 November 2010.
- The Gentle Giant, based on an article in the London evening newspaper "The Star" for 9 November 1893