Geling Yan was born in Shanghai, People's Republic of China. She performed as a dancer at age 12. She served in the People's Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution, in Tibet and later as a journalist in the Sino-Vietnamese War, achieving a rank equivalent to Lieutenant Colonel. Her first novel was published in 1985. She is the author of such novels as The Banquet Bug (published as The Uninvited in the UK) and The Lost Daughter of Happiness, as well as a story collection entitled White Snake and Other Stories.
Several of Yan's works have been adapted for film, including Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, which was directed by Joan Chen and Siao Yu, directed by Sylvia Chang and screenplay co-written by Ang Lee. Zhang Yimou, the Chinese director of To Live and Raise the Red Lantern is currently adapting another of her novellas to the screen. She has worked on other scripts including a biography of Mei Lanfang, the Peking opera star, for Chinese director Chen Kaige. She is a member of the Hollywood Writer's Guild of America and the Writer's Association of China.
Yan holds a bachelor's degree in literature from Wuhan University, and a Master's in Fine Arts in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago.