He hailed from Shangyang 山陽 (modern Zouxian 鄒縣, Shandong) and was already at an early age known as one of the "eightfold perfects" (baji 八及). He was appointed watch officer of the Northern Army (beijun zhonghou 北軍中侯), and was in 190 transferred to the post of regional inspector (cishi 刺史) of the province of Jingzhou 荊州 (approx. modern Hubei). In this position he won the support of many influential members of the local gentry and was able to restore peace among the unquiet populace.
When the central government fell apart under the reign of Emperor Xiandi 漢獻帝 (r. 189-220), the warlord Yuan Shu 袁術 incited Sun Jian 孫堅, who controlled the lower Yangtze region, to attack Liu Biao, but he was defeated in battle and died. In 192 Liu Biao was appointed regional governor (mu 牧) of the province of Jingzhou, was awarded the title of General pacifying the south (zhennan jiangjun 鎮南將軍) and given the title of Marquis of Chengwu 成武侯.
In 201 he won the support of another, minor warlord, Liu Bei 劉備, who had been defeated by Cao Cao. The relatively peaceful situation in the middle Yangtze region attracted a lot of immigrants from the north. Among these, Liu Biao could also find a lot of helpful supporters and scholars. He established an academy staffed with Confucian erudites (boshi 博士), like Qiwu Kai 綦毋闓 and Song Zhong 宋忠.
In 208 Liu Biao died, just when Cao Cao undertook another campaign to conquer the south. When Cao Cao arrived in Xiangyang 襄陽, Liu Biao's son Liu Cong 劉琮 submitted to the mighty warlord of the north. Liu Bei fled to Sichuan where he later founded the empire of Shu.