Cheng's father died when Cheng was very young. Around the age of nine, Cheng was struck on the head by a falling brick or roof tile, and was in a coma for a short while. He recuperated slowly, and was apprenticed to a well-known artist, Wang Xiangchan, in hopes that simple jobs like grinding ink would help his health. Within a few years, his teacher sent him out to earn his living at painting. Cheng's aunt Chang Kuang, also known by her artist's name of Hongwei Laoren, was a well-known painter. During Cheng's childhood, his mother took him out to find medicinal plants and taught him the fundamentals of traditional Chinese herbal medicine.
Cheng taught poetry and art in several leading colleges in Beijing and Shanghai and was a successful artist. At the age of nineteen, he was a professor of poetry at an esteemed art school in Beijing. Later in Shanghai, he became acquainted with influential figures including Wu Changshi, Cai Yuanpei, Zheng Xiaoxu, Xu Beihong, and Zhang Daqian.
In his twenties, he developed lung disease (believed to be tuberculosis partly from exposure to the chalk dust from the school blackboards). Ill to the point of coughing up blood, he began to practice tai chi chuan more diligently to aid his recovery. Cheng retired from teaching and devoted himself for several years to the study of tai chi chuan, traditional Chinese medicine, and literature.
In addition to his childhood instruction, Cheng Man-ch'ing received formal Chinese medical training. While he was teaching painting in a Shanghai art school, one of his friends grew ill and was unable to find relief. Cheng Man-ch'ing wrote a complex prescription for his friend, who took the medicine and recovered fully. One story from his memorial book is that a retired traditional doctor named Song You-an came across the prescription. He demanded to be put in contact with the person who wrote it, as the sophistication and erudition of the prescription showed exceptional talent and competence. As war was raging across China at that time, it took several years before Cheng Man-ch'ing was able to present himself for study. With Song, Cheng received instruction and became conversant with the Chinese pharmacopoeia.
Another version of this story, attested to by Professor Cheng's students, is that the physician who encountered Cheng's prescription was then head of a medical school far west of the seacoast; this physician was the son of a traditional doctor, whose own father had been a doctor, and so on back twelve generations. Thus, Cheng Man-ch'ing for a year or two became the premier student of the director of a medical school who was twelfth in an unbroken lineage of physicians.
In 1928 he met the well-known master Yang Chengfu, with whom he began to study Yang style tai chi chuan, which he did until 1935. Questions have been raised regarding the lineage claims of Cheng Man-Ch'ing and his relationship, if any, to Yang Chengfu. Cheng Man-ch'ing's name is not included in the list of Yang Chengfu's students and scholarly research regarding Cheng's life has failed to substantiate claims that he was a student of Yang Chengfu for a time period of seven to ten years. Rene Navarro in the article "In Search of Yang Chengfu" states, "I observed the famous Cheng Man Ching, who had a school at the foot of Manhattan Bridge on the Bowery in New York City. Cheng had a reputation as a formidable fighter. His short form of 37 movements was derived from the Yang Family classical fist form of 108 movements. It was said that he studied with Yang Chengfu, but I did not know what forms or for how long. At the time, there were articles that said he studied for a decade. Later, a researcher estimated 3 years. More recently, Master Dong of Hawaii quoted his grandfather (Tung Ying Chieh) as saying that Cheng studied only for 6 months .
Cheng, according to Yang's son Zhenji, ghostwrote Yang's second book Essence and Applications of Taijiquan or The Substance and Application of T'ai Chi Ch'uan (Taijiquan tiyong quanshu, 1934), for which Cheng also wrote a preface and most likely arranged for the calligraphic dedications.
Cheng taught tai chi chuan, practiced medicine, and continued his art practice in Sichuan Province during the Sino-Japanese war years. By 1946, he had developed a significantly abbreviated 37-move version of Yang's traditional form. He wrote the manuscript for his Thirteen Chapters during this period, and showed them to his elder classmate Chen Weiming, who gave it his imprimatur.
Cheng moved to Taiwan in 1949 and continued his career as a physician and as a teacher of his new tai chi chuan form, as well as actively practicing painting, poetry, and calligraphy. He published Cheng's 13 Chapters of T'ai Chi Boxing in 1950 which has been translated into English twice. He started the Shih Chung T'ai Chi Association in Taipei, where many now well-known students (Benjamin Lo, Liu Hsi-heng, Hsu I-chung, Robert W. Smith, T. T. Liang, William C. C. Chen, Huang Sheng Shyan and others) trained with him. Though he tended not to advertise it, he served as one of the painting teachers of Soong Mei-ling, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, whom he taught to paint lotuses; and as personal physician to Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan and perhaps earlier.
In 1964, Cheng moved with his family (Madame Cheng, two sons, and three daughters) to the United States, where he taught at the New York T'ai Chi Association at 211 Canal Street in Manhattan. He then founded and taught at the Shr Jung T'ai Chi school at 87 Bowery in New York City's Chinatown section, with the assistance of his six American senior students, known as the "Big Six": Tam Gibbs, Lou Kleinsmith, Ed Young, Mort Raphael, Maggie Newman, and Stanley Israel. Half a dozen later students/assistants are known as "the Little Six": Victor Chin, Y Y Chin, Jon Gaines, Natasha Gorky, Wolfe Lowenthal, and Ken VanSickle. Other American students include Herman Kauz, Patt Benton, Robert Ante, Patrick Watson, Lawrence Galante and William C. Phillips. In Taiwan, Cheng's students continued running the school in his absence. It operated initially under the direction of Liu Hsi-heng. Hsu I-chung is the current director.
While living in New York City, Cheng often spent several hours in the early afternoons studying or teaching classes of three or four students in the C. V. Starr East Asian Library in Columbia University, usually in a small, mahogany-panelled loft above the main floor. For relaxation, he raised orchids.
In 1967 in collaboration with Robert W. Smith, and T. T. Liang, Cheng published "T'ai Chi, the Supreme Ultimate Exercise for Health, Sport and Self-defense," which was his second tai chi book in English. He wrote over a dozen other books on a variety of subjects, including the I Ching, the Tao Te Ching, the Analects of Confucius, books of poetry, essays, medicine, and art collections. Translations of his works include: "Master Cheng's New Method of T'ai Chi Ch'uan Self-Cultivation"; "Cheng Man Ch'ing: Essays on Man and Culture"; "Cheng Man Ch'ing: Master of Five Excellences," and "T'ai Chi Ch'uan: A Simplified Method of Calisthenics for Health and Self-Defense."
Cheng Man-ch'ing is best known in the West for his tai chi chuan. The following are some of the characteristics of his "Yang-style short form."
These changes allowed Cheng to teach larger numbers of students in a shorter time. His shortened form became extremely popular in Taiwan and Malaysia, and he was among one of the earliest Chinese masters to teach tai chi chuan publicly in the United States. His students have continued to spread his form around the world.
It should be noted that Cheng rejected the appellation "Yang Style Short Form" to characterize his tai chi. When pressed on the issue, he called his form "Yang-Style Tai Chi in 37 Postures." However, the postures in his form are counted differently from those in the Yang Chengfu form. In the older form each movement counts as a posture, whereas in the Cheng form postures are counted only the first time they are performed, and rarely or not at all when they are repeated. Moreover, certain postures which appear in the Cheng form, such as High Pat on Horse, are not counted at all. These differences in how the postures are counted have led some Cheng practitioners, such as William C.C. Chen, to characterize their own forms as exceeding 70 "movements," and indeed, upon close comparison with the Yang Chengfu form, Cheng's postures, if counted the same way as Yang's are, would number over 70.
Cheng's changes to the Yang style form have never been officially recognised by the Yang family and (perhaps partly because of the continued popularity of Cheng's shortened form) his style is still a source of controversy among some tai chi chuan practitioners. From Cheng's own point of view, the approval of his elder brother disciple Ch'en Wei-ming was all the recognition he needed, since by that time Yang Chengfu was deceased, and all of the current generation of Yang Chengfu leaders were junior to him.
In Taiwan, a number of his students still teach, and the Shih Chung school still operates. In New York City, among Cheng's senior students, Maggie Newman and Ed Young are still teaching.