Xu Cao was also known by his courtesy name Yansun and literary names Shuanghonglouzhu, Shuanghongkanzhu, and Zhongqiusheng. His ancestors were from Shen county, Hebei province while he was born in Beijing. He first followed Guan Nianci, a renowned painter in the Imperial Palace, as a student and later practiced painting under the tutelage of Yu Ming. Xu had been vice-chairman of Beijing Chinese Painting Research Society and a member of the Committee of Artistic Creation of China Artists Association. In 1956, he took part in the preparation work for the establishment of the Academy of Chinese Painting and when it was formally set up in 1957, he was appointed as the vice-president of the Academy and the vice-president of Chinese Painting Research Society. Xu excelled at painting figures and scenes. He was also famous for his meticulous painting (gongbi), freehand painting (xieyi), plain outlining (baimiao) and heavy use of colors (zhongcai).