He began to learn Peking opera at the age of six, first learning wusheng (actor playing a martial role) from Rong Diexian, then huadan (a role for a vivacious maiden, a young woman with a frank and open personality, or a woman of questionable character) from Chen Tongyun, and qingyi (a role usually representing a middle-aged woman who always acts as a Mrs or Miss from a noble family) from Chen Xiaoyun. He also took Mei Lanfang as his tutor.
He went on stage at the age of 11 and one year later he joined other actors in performing General's Son to Be Executed, A Child Left in the Mulberry Garden and The Pavilion of Royal Monument, which earned favorable comments. He could play various roles.
Cheng also wrote and performed a lot of new operas since the 1920s, such as the Blue Frost Sword, An Emerald Hairpin, Lady Mei, the Dream of the Young Lady, and etc. There was something unique about his singing, soft and pleasing, firm but gentle, and it deeply touched the audience's emotions. He paid special attention to expressing characters' feelings.
During the War of Resistance Against Japan, he lived a solitary life as a farmer in the western suburbs of Beijing. In the 1930s, he was president of Beiping Branch of Nanjing Conservatory of Traditional Opera Music and president of Zhonghua Traditional Opera Training School. He toured Europe for research in art in 1932. The countries he visited include France, United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland.
After the founding of the People's Republic of China, he was appointed vice president of the Chinese Academy of Traditional Opera. The books he wrote included Collected Works of Cheng Yanqiu and Selected Operas Performed by Cheng Yanqiu.
He died of heart attack in Beijing on March 9, 1958.