Ding Ruchang joined Taiping Rebellion in 1854. But later he joined Li Hongzhang as a cavalryman to fight against the Taiping Rebellion. In 1874, he protested against Qing Dynasty government's decision about reduction of the army size. He went back to his hometown to avoid being killed.
In 1875, he volunteered as the commander of the 's Beiyang Fleet which fought the Battle of the Yalu River in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894. He became a casualty of the battle from the opening shot of his own vessel, the , along with a number of officers also present on the bridge.
In February 1895, the Beiyang Fleet commanded by Admiral Ding was facing total defeat. Admiral Ding committed suicide. His deputy, Admiral Liu, also committed suicide. The remnants of the Beiyang Fleet surrendered to the Japanese. After his death, Admiral Ding was still blamed by the imperial government for the great defeat, and his family was only after to give him a proper burial in 1912 after the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Qing dynasty.