Born in a wealthy family in Zhenhai County, Kuaiji Dao, Zhejiang in 1923, both his grandfather and father were doctors. His mother, Xu Shujuan (徐书卷), was a daughter of an eminent family. His elder maternal cousin, Xu Xu (徐訏), was a romantic novelist. And his great-grandfather was the founder of Shengziji Soy Sauce Brewery (盛滋记酱油酿造厂), which participated in exhibition on Panama World's Fair in 1915. He graduated from The Lester School and Henry Lester Institute of Technical Education Attached School (雷士德工学院附属中学), Songjiang School (松江中学), and Nantong Agricultural College (南通农学院).In December 1937, during the Second Sino-Japanese War, he moved to Shanghai with his family to escape the violence, by age 14.
In 1938, he started to learn Russian language under a Russian housewife and Jiang Chunfang (姜椿芳), who was a Russian literature translator and a member of the underground CPC of Shanghai.
He wrote under the pen name of Cao Ying in 1941.
From 1945 to 1951, he worked as an editor and translator in Time Publishing Company (时代出版社).
In 1956, he worked in Shanghai Writers Association.
In 1960, he started to translated The Complete Works of Leo Tolstoy into Chinese, at the same year, the Sino-Soviet Rupture, and he was brought to be persecuted.
In 1966, Mao Zedong launched the Cultural Revolution, he was regarded as "the agent of Sholokhov" and "a revisionist USSR spy", he suffered political persecution and he was sent to the May Seventh Cadre Schools to do farm work. He got gastrorrhagia in 1969 and he fractured his backbone in 1975.After the Chinese economic reform, he was rehabilitated by Deng Xiaoping. He served as vice president of Chinese Translation Association, president of Shanghai Translation Association, vice president of Shanghai Writers Association. He became a professor at East China Normal University and Xiamen University.
From 1978 to 1998, he spent 20 years to translate The Complete Works of Leo Tolstoy into Chinese.
He joined the Russian Writer Association in 2006.
Cao died at Huadong Hospital in Shanghai, on October 25, 2015, at the age of 93.