Born in Wuhan, mainland China, Tien and his family fled to Taiwan in 1949 at the end of the the Chinese Civil War. He earned a BS in mechanical engineering from the National Taiwan University in 1955 and went on to a fellowship at the University of Louisville in 1956, where he received a MME in heat transfer in 1957. He then earned his MA and PhD degrees in mechanical engineering from Princeton University in 1959.
Tien joined UC Berkeley faculty as a assistant professor of mechanical engineering in 1959, and three years later, at the age of 26, became the youngest professor ever to be honored with UC Berkeley's Distinguished Teaching Award. He was promoted to full professor in 1968 and served as the Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering from 1974-81. From 1983-85, he served as vice chancellor of research. Tien spent his entire career at Berkeley, except for 1988-90 when he was executive vice-chancellor of UC Irvine. In 1999, Tien received the prestigious title of "University Professor".
An expert in thermal science and researched on thermal radiation, thermal insulation, microscale thermal phenomena, fluid flow, phase-change energy transfer, heat pipes, reactor safety, cryogenics, and fire phenomena, authoring more than 300 research journal and monograph articles, 16 edited volumes, and one book.
As chancellor, Tien was a leading supporter of affirmative action. After the Regents's 1995 ban of using of racial preferences in university admissions, Tien launched the "Berkeley Pledge", an outreach program designed to recruit disadvantaged students from the state's public schools. Amid a 18 percent budget cut, Tien launched the "The Promise of Berkeley - Campaign for the New Century," a fundraising drive that raised $1.44 billion.
Known for his "Go Bears!" spirit, Tien was popular with the students, often showing up student rallies and ball games. As he was not uncommonly sighted picking up trash in Sproul Plaza, stories about him appearing in the library in the middle of the night during finals week, checking up on students in the residence halls and classrooms, or elsewhere surfaced.
Tien was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, the Academia Sinica (in Taiwan), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences (in mainland China). The Zi Jin Mountain Observatory in China named an astroid "Tienchanglin" and a Chevron Corporation oil tanker was christened "M/T Chang-Lin Tien", both named in his honor.
Tien died in Redwood City, California at the age of 67. A brain tumor had forced him into hospitalization two years earlier, during which he suffered a stroke from which he never fully recovered. He was survived by his wife Di-Hwa, his son Norman, an electrical and computer engineering professor at UC Davis and daughters Christine, Stockton's deputy city manager, and Phyllis, a UC San Francisco physician.