He studied in Japan in his early life. In 1915 Chen started the influential magazine, New Youths. He lectured Chinese literature and became the president of the school of Arts in Peking University since 1917. In 1918 he started another magazine, the Weekly Review with Li Dazhao, promoting democracy, science and new literature (baihua).
He was also one of the main leader of the May Fourth Movement in 1919. After the movement Chen was heavily influenced by the 1917 October Revolution and started to advocate and promote Marxism after a serious study of it. He founded the Communist Party in 1921 and was elected as the General Secretary of the Central Bureau. He was the representative of the right-wing members in the party at the time. In 1927 he gave up his leadership position and was disappointed with the communism idea. Two years later he was dismissed by the party. In 1932 he was arrested by Kuomintang for being the founder of an illegal party. He was released five years later and kept silent ever after. Chen passed away in 1942 in Sichuan.