Chen was born with the surname Xie (謝) to a fishermen family in Mianyang (沔陽, now in Hubei). He once worked as a district official. As a general in the Red Turbans he worked under Er Wensui (倪文俊). Chen later killed Er with the excuse that Er intended to assassinate Xu Shouhui, their leader. He later also killed Xu.
In 1357, he proclaimed himself the King of Han in Jiangzhou (江州, today Jiujiang, Jiangxi), and emperor the next year after Xu died. His era name, as well as empire's name, was Dahan. His military strength soon weakened because of dissatisfaction among his soldiers. In 1361, Jiangzhou was conquered by Zhu Yuanzhang, so he retreated to Wuchang.
At the age of 43, he was killed by an arrow after losing a fight with Zhu's army at Panyang Lake (鄱陽湖). He was succeeded by his son, Chen Li (陳理), who was lost to Zhu. Zhu later founded the Ming Dynasty.