He hailed from Yangcheng 陽城 (modern Fangcheng 方城, Henan) and was a landowner of that region. In 209 he was made a conscript for the erection of the garrison of Yuyang 漁陽 (modern Miyun 密雲, Beijing), together with Wu Guang 吳廣. It happened that on their way to the destination, there was heavy rain which threatened their punctual arrival. The conscripts decided, in order to escape punishment, to rebel, killed their overseer and openly rebelled in the town of Daze 大澤鄉 near Qixian 蘄縣 (modern Suxian 宿縣, Anhui).
Modern Chinese historians hail their uprising as the first armed peasant rebellion in Chinese history. Chen Sheng called himself general, fighting for justice for the murdered Prince Fusu 扶蘇 and for the honour of late general Xiang Yan 項燕 of Chu 楚. On his way to the west, he assembled a large army and dared proclaiming himself King of Chu (Chu had been one of the large powerful competitors of Qin during the Warring States period 戰國, 5th cent.-221 BCE), fighting for justice and against the cruelties of the Qin.
Chen Sheng reported having found in a fish's belly a Heavenly letter written in red ink (dan shu bo 丹書帛), bestowing himself the Heavenly Mandate for rulership. There was also, it is told, a fire at night calling for the enthronement of Chen Sheng as a king.
The rebel army was equipped very badly, using wooden clubs as weapons. The rebel army first conquered Qi 蘄 (modern Suzhou 宿州, Anhui) Chen Sheng dispatched general Ge Ying 葛嬰 to the east， while he himself captured the towns of Zhi 銍, Zan 酇, Ku 苦, Tuo 柘 and Qiao 譙. When he seized the town of Chenxian 陳縣 (modern Huaiyang 淮陽, Henan), Chen Sheng's army already consisted of several ten thousand infantry troops, more than 1,000 cavalry troops, and he also disposed of chariots.
His rebellion met a warm welcome among former nobility throughout the empire, for example, Zhang Er 張耳 and Chen Yu 陳餘, Wu Chen 武臣 and Zhou Shi 周市. In the south, the ancient region of Chu proper, Ying Bu 英布, Wu Rui 吳芮 assembled an army, in the southeast, Chen Ying 陳嬰 (in Dongyang 東楊) and Xiang Liang 項梁 (in Guiji 會稽), son of a former general of Chu, rose in rebellion against the Qin. In Tancheng 郯城, Qin Jia 秦嘉 and Zhu Jishi 朱雞石 killed the local officials. In Peixian 沛縣, a petty official named Liu Bang killed the magistrate and joined the rebellion.
Wu Guang, vice king (jiawang 假王), attacked Xingyang 滎陽, Zhou Wen 周文 marched towards the capital region, Song Liu 宋留 conquered Nanyang 南陽, Deng Zong 鄧宗 marched towards Jiujiang 九江. Cheng Sheng proved not to be what he had promised. He was cruel towards the population, dispised the advices of his generals and was unable to attract their confidence.
His proclamation of king of Greater Chu 張楚 furthermore repelled the members of the former nobility. The armies of the rebels were therefore not endowed with the right spirit, and the first to be beaten by the Qin general Zhang Han 章邯 was Zhou Wen.
Wu Guang was killed by his general Tian Zang 田臧, but Tian Zang soon suffered defeat by Zhang Han. Chen Sheng, taking over command over his last troops, resisted Zhang Han’s troops, but the rebel army dispersed. Chen Sheng fled to Xiachengfu 下城父 (modern Woyiang 渦陽, Anhui), where he was killed by his charioteer.
He was buried in Dang 碭 and at the beginning of the Han dynasty in 202, he was granted an official burial site and was posthumously given the title of King Yin "the Hidden" of Chu 楚隱王.