He hailed from Luoyang 洛陽 (today Henan) and was made Palace Attendant-in-ordinary (zhongchangshi 中常侍) during the reign of Emperor Huan 漢桓帝 (r. 146－167). During that time the late emperor's brother-in-law Liang Ji 梁冀 was factual regent of the empire, occupying the post of General-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍) in replacement for his father Liang Shang 梁商. Emperor Huan wanted to get rid off the Liang clan, but did not dare to strike.
Only when Empress Dowager Liang 梁后 died, in 159, Shan Chao headed a group supporting the Emperor (the other eunuchs of that group were Zuo Guan 左悺, Ju Yuan 具瑗, Xu Huang 徐璜 and Tang Heng 唐衡), and Liang Ji and his clique was killed. Shan was therefore rewarded with the title of Marquis of Xinfeng 新豐侯 (together with the four other eunuchs called the "five marquesses" wuhou 五侯). Yet from then on the emperor were dominated by eunuch cliques instead of by the relatives of empresses (qinqi 親戚).
Yet Shan soon fell ill, was bestowed the title of horse-and-chariot general (cheji jiangjun 車騎將軍), and died a year later. He war buried with greatest honours.