Cao was born in Shanghai, the son of a dance teacher and a musician. When he was four years old, the family moved to Beijing. He received training in classical dance at the Beijing Dance Academy, where his father was director. In 1993, he got a scholarship to train at the Royal Ballet School in London. In 1995, he became a member of the Birmingham Royal Ballet. In 1998 he won the Gold Medal at the Varna International Ballet Competition. Together with partner Nao Sakuma, he represented the company, inter alia, at the NATO gala in 2000 in Birmingham and the Golden Jubilee of Elizabeth II in 2002.
Cao portrayed the Chinese ballet dancer Li Cunxin in the biographical film Mao's Last Dancer (2009). For this role he was nominated for Best Actor in the Inside Film Awards. Li Cunxin himself had recommended Chi Cao for this role because he knew his father.