Fan's work deals with the traditional themes of the period, including peasant life, the seasons, Buddhism, and growing old. Fan was born in Suzhou into a middle-ranking family at a time of conflict between the Southern Song and Jin dynasties. A precocious child, his early studies of classical literature prepared him for a career in the civil service - a career that was temporarily interrupted when his parents died within a few months of each other in 1143, leaving Fan Chengda in sole charge of the family estate. These studies, together with his experiences of working in the fields as a teenager and his interest in Buddhism, provided inspiration for his later poetry.
After a youth of poverty, Fan Chengda was able to pass Imperial Examination to secure a the jinshi degree in 1154 AD. Afterwards he secured a long career in service of the state. During his career he wrote an important geographical treatise known as the Gui Hai Yu Heng Chi. The book focused primarily on the topography of the land and commercial products of China's southern provinces. In this Fan followed a long geographical literary tradition spanning from the Shu Jing (Historical Classic) of the 5th century BC, the Huainan Zi of the 2nd century BC, and predated the famous written works by the Ming Dynasty geographer Xu Xiake.
His best-known work is a series of sixty poems which he wrote in 1186, following his retirement from his position as a high official at the Southern Song Court. The poems have been translated into English under the name Stone Lake - the location of his retirement villa just outside Suzhou.