Born 1949 in Gongyi, Henan Province, Ma joined the air force in 1965, and learned to fly at the 2nd Preparatory Flight School, before formally entering the 12th Flight School the next year. After his graduation in 1968, he became a military instructor. Ma joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1969, and beginning in 1972 saw a continuous series of promotions. In 1983, he became the deputy headmaster, and was then promoted to headmaster. In 1993, Ma began studies at the PLA National Defence University. After graduating in 1994, he became the head of staff of the 10th division of the Air Force, and was later promoted to head of the division. In March 1997, Ma became the deputy head of staff of the PLA Air Force. The next year, he served as the head of staff of the Air Force of the Guangzhou Military Region. He has also served as the deputy head and the head of the Air Force of the Lanzhou Military Region. In 2001, he became the deputy head and the head of the Air Force of the Nanjing Military Region. In 2003, Ma was promoted to the deputy head of the Air Force. In 2006, he became the President of the PLA National Defence University. In 2007, he was appointed deputy chief of the PLA General Staff Department.