Born in Shanghai to parents, but raised outside of Guangzhou, Cai Chusheng worked in low-level positions in several small studios during the 1920s, before eventually joining Mingxing Film Company as a director's assistant. Cai did not gain true prominence until he joined the Lianhua Film Company where his role as a leading leftist filmmaker throughout the 1930s and 1940s was cemented. He is perhaps most famous for his film, ''New Women'' , starring Ruan Lingyu in her final role prior to her suicide.
In 1934, Cai's ''Song of the Fisherman'' became the first Chinese film to win an international prize at the Moscow Film Festival.
Cai's post-war film, the collaboration with Zheng Junli ''The Spring River Flows East'' also proved to be a major film in the brief "" of Cinema that followed the end of the Second World War. Following the Communist revolution, Cai worked mainly in administrative tasks, though he did make one major post-1949 film, ''Waves on the Southern Shore'' . As the Cultural Revolution began to gain momentum in the late 1960s, Cai Chusheng, like many artists and intellectuals, became the target of persecution, which led to his early death in 1968.
In Stanley Kwan's 1992 biopic of Ruan Lingyu, ''Centre Stage'', Cai Chusheng is portrayed by Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Ka Fai.