Chen was born in a Hakka family in Tingzhou (Now Shanghang County). His family originated from Xiushui County in Jiangxi province. He obtained the second highest degree in the imperial examinations in 1851. During the Self-Strengthening Movement, Chen became closely associated with Zeng Guofan efforts to rearm China. In 1895, he was appointed governor of Hunan province, where he carried out a reform program with the aid of Tan Sitong and Liang Qichao. Chen's sympathies to the Hundred Days' Reform attracted criticism from his superiors, especially Empress Dowager Cixi who distrusted reformists such as Chen Baozhen.
He was dismissed from his post in 1898 after the failure of the Hundred days' Reform. Without the support of Guangxu Emperor Chen was no longer protected from conservatives' criticism.  Chen died in Nanjing two years later.
During his term in Hunan, Chen promoted his reform with the goal of modernizing Hunan. It was one of the first actual reform carried out in modern China. He also founded the first school in Hunan province which was known for its revolutionary ideals.During the reform, Chen appointed Liang Qichao and Tan Sitong who were active advocator of modernization. Of course, Chen's move met with the resistance from Hunan's local conservative gentries. The conservatives disdained the implementation of Western schools in Hunan and set up obstacles for reformists. In order to silence his conservative opponents, Chen enforced censorship on local news papers. However, the conservative pressure on Chen's reform eventually brought an abrupt end to the reform. 
Although Chen did not complete the modernization of Hunan, the younger elites of Hunan was influenced by his endeavour. By the early 20th century, Hunan had become one of the most radical reformist province in China. Mao Zedong, the founder of People's republic of China, was among the younger elites who were influenced by the Hunanese reformist ideals.
- Chen, Sanli (2003). 散原精舍詩文集. 上海古籍. ISBN 9787532533046.
- 花随人圣庵摭忆（上中下）. 中华书局. p. 353. ISBN 9787101060874.
- Schram, Stuart (2015). Mao's Road to Power: Revolutionary Writings, 1912-49: V. 1: Pre-Marxist Period, 1912-20: Revolutionary Writings, 1912-49, Volume 1. Routledge. ISBN 9781317465416.
- Liu, Liyan (2012). Red Genesis: The Hunan First Normal School and the Creation of Chinese Communism, 1903-1921. SUNY Press. p. 25.