Chen was born in a Hakka family in Tingzhou (Now Shanghang County). His family originated from Xiushui County in Jiangxi province. He obtained the second highest degree in the imperial examinations in 1851. During the Self-Strengthening Movement, Chen became closely associated with Zeng Guofan efforts to rearm China. In 1895, he was appointed governor of Hunan province, where he carried out a reform program with the aid of Tan Sitong and Liang Qichao. Chen's sympathies to the Hundred Days' Reform attracted criticism from his superiors, especially Empress Dowager Cixi who distrusted reformists such as Chen Baozhen.
He was dismissed from his post in 1898 after the failure of the Hundred days' Reform. Without the support of Guangxu Emperor Chen was no longer protected from conservatives' criticism. Chen died in Nanjing two years later.