Son of former Vice President Chen Tsyr-shiou, Chen was born in Lushan (廬山縣), Jiangxi and earned his masters' and Ph.D in mathematics from New York University. He had a close friendship with Wang Yung-ching, a respected businessman. Wang later appointed Chen the headmaster of the private Ming-chi Technology College, which Wang owned (July 1970 - February 1972).
Lin Yang-kang originally considered Chen to be his vice-presidential running-mate in the ROC presidential election, 1996. However, Chen chose to run as president himself (with Wang Ching-feng as the vice-presidential candidate). As Chen is a devoted convert to Tibetan Buddhism (he is ethnically Han), he toured the island in a strong spirtual theme in his campaign, giving an image that some commented to be like an "ascetic monk".
After losing his bid in the presidential election, Chen announced that he would no longer hold another public post in his life. As part of his efforts to promote Tibetan Buddhism, he founded the Hwa-yu Foundation (化育基金會), of which he serves as president and his eldest son, Chen Yu-ting (陳宇廷), serves as director. Chen also organized charities to financially assist ethnic minorities in mainland China.
While he still considered the Kuomintang a "rotten party" , Chen endorsed the KMT candidate Lien Chan in the ROC presidential election, 2000, believing that Lien was unlike the rest of the Kuomintang.
On January 6, 2001, Chen re-joined Kuomintang, also bringing his wife, Tsao Chin (曹倩), to join for the first time. He commented that while it had done some embarrassing things, the Kuomintang also did some good to the country. The following day, he expressed his wish to participate in the upcoming presidential election if the new Chen government fails to please the people.
See also: Politics of Taiwan