He was born in a cultivated family and studied calligraphy in his childhood. Later, he studied painting in the school of Fine Arts in Hangzhou from 1935 to 1941. He went to the block of Montparnasse in Paris, where he followed Émile Othon Friesz's classes. His earliest exhibition in France were met with praise from Miró and Picasso.
His works, influenced by Paul Klee, are orientated to abstraction. He names them with the date in which he finishes them, and in them, masses of colours appear to materialise a creating world, like a big bang, where light structures the canvas. He works often big formats in triptychs and diptychs. While the style of his works is stylistically similar to the Abstract Expressionists whom he met while travelling in New York, he's also influenced by Impressionism. Zao Wou-ki himself has stated that he is particularly enamored with the works of Cézanne and Matisse.
His meeting with Henri Michaux pushed him to review his Indian ink techniques, always based in Chinese traditional drawings.
Zao Wou-ki is a member of the Académie des beaux-arts, and is considered one of the most successful Chinese painters alive. One of his paintings recently sold for a record price equivalent to 2 million USD at the Sotheby's in Hong Kong. Former French President Jacques Chirac was offered a painting by Zao Wu Ki by his ministers during their last meeting.
As of now Zao Wou-ki has stopped producing new paintings.