He received his preliminary education at home.
Chan-shan Ma entered army service at age of twenty and first served in the Second Cavalry- Brigade of Fengtien Army. For meritorious services in bandit suppression, he was successively promoted company commander, battalion commander and regiment commander. In 1927, he was transferred to the Heiiungkiang Army under the late General Wu Chun-sen, Tupan of Heilunkiang. Mr. Ma distinguished himself in suppressing the most ferocious robber band in the province, the White Wolf, and Mongolian brigands and was promoted a Brigade Commander. In 1929 he was appointed concurrently Garrison Commander of Heiho, a border district of Heiiungkiang.
When the Japanese invasion of Manchuria started in September, 1931, he was entrusted with the duty of defending Heiiungkiang and shortly after, was appointed acting Chairman of the Heiiungkiang Provincial Government. In recognition of his great and loyal service to the country in resisting the Japanese invaders, he was soon confirmed in the latter post succeeding Gen. Wan Fu-lin. Following the capture of Tsitsihar, provincial Capital of Heiiungkiang on Nov. 18, 1981, by the Japanese troops, he and his Government moved to Hailun in North Heiiungkiang which he made his new base of operations against the Japanese.
While Chan-shan Ma was thus entrenched in Hailun, he was daily overwhelmed with furious offensives by the Japanese, but could not be dislodged. Failing to subjugate his indomitable spirit by force, the Japanese resorted to the subtle methods of persuasion and bribery. In order to learn the secrets of the Japanese intrigues and designs, he permitted himself to be influenced by the Japanese persuasions and gracefully joined the rank of the invaders. He participated in the establishment of the Japanese puppet "Manchukuo" and accepted the post of Minister of War in Cabinet, but carefully preserved his hold on Heiiungkiang as Chairman of the Provincial Government. After obtaining a huge sum of funds from the Japanese and a large quantity of arms and ammunition, he swiftly but ingenuously carried out a coup d'etat in Tsitsihar, openly departing from the provincial capital on a pretended inspection tour.
Mr. Ma went straight to Hailun where he effected a speedy reorganization of his troops and declared his opposition to the Manchukuo and its Japanese creators at the very moment when the Lytton Inquiry Commission entered Manchuria to conduct its investigation. From Hailun, he issued a 5,000 word telegram broadcasted from a Chinese Consulate on the Soviet Border exposing and denouncing the Japanese intrigues in Manchuria. Then he resumed his campaign against the Japanese and fought many bloody battles. Time and again, he was reported killed in action by the Japanese military, but these reports belied themselves by his continuous resistance when the Japanese Army launched its general offensive against Gen. Su PingWen's Army in Hailar Region, in Sept. 1932, he joined forces with Gen. Su and put up a valiant but futile resistance against the Japanese onslaught and was finally forced to retire into Soviet Russia.
After remaining in Russia for almost half a year, he went to Europe and then returned to China. He was an expert shooter and cavalry tactician. Riding on a horse galloping he can shoot passing birds with a pistol in each hand without missing his aim. He was appointed a member of the Military Affairs Commission of the National Government on June 22, 1933.