She was a daughter of Zhao Lin 趙臨, and was a dancing maid in the household of Princess Yang'a 陽阿公主. She was known as the "Flying Swallow" (feiyan 飛燕) because she was able to dance in a bird-like manner. When Emperor Cheng visited the Princess he found great pleasure in the arts and the beauty of Zhao Feiyan and made her his concubine. Not soon after, her sister Zhao Hede 趙合德 also entered the imperial harem. Both were made court ladies of the rank of Lady of Handsome Fairness (jieyu 婕妤).
The sisters had conquered the heart of the emperor so that he decided to depose Empress Xu 許皇后 and Lady Ban 班婕妤, his second consort, because of sorcery, and to make Zhao Feiyan his new empress. This step incited the opposition of the Empress Dowager because Zhao Feiyan was of a humble origin. Yet the emperor simply gave Zhao Lin the title of Marquis of Chengyang 成陽侯, so that she was of noble origin and could be elevated to the position of empress, while Zhao Hede was given the title of a court lady of the rank of Lady of Light Deportment (zhaoyi 昭儀, see female officals).
Emperor Cheng did not father a son, and even inspite of all attempts of Zhao Feiyan to get pregnant (she was even said to have intercourse with some palace slaves for this purpose), she did not succeed, while Lady Cao 曹宮 and Lady Xu 許美人 bore sons to the emperor. Zhao Feiyan had killed all of them, so that in the end, Emperor Cheng decided to name his nephew, Liu Xin 劉欣, Prince of Dingtao 定陶王, his heir apparent. When he died, Zhao Hede was forced to commit suicide, while Zhao Feiyan was declared Empress Dowager by Liu Xin (known as Emperor Ai 漢哀帝, r. 7-1 BCE).
After the death of Emperor Ai, when his wife Wang Zhengjun 王政君 and her nephew Wang Mang 王莽 took over regency, Zhao Feiyan was put into arrest in the Northern Palace (Beigong 北宮) and was later demoted to a commoner. She was sent to the tomb mound of Emperor Cheng, where she was ordered to care for the offerings in the tomb garden. That same day she committed suicide.