He hailed from Suiyang 睢陽 (modern Shangqiu 商丘, Henan) and was originally a silk merchant. When the first rebellion against the Qin dynasty 秦 (221-206 BC) broke out, he joined the camp of Liu Bang, where he was appointed palace receptionist (zhongjuan 中涓). For his competency in battle, he has transferred to the post of "holder of the silks" (zhibo 執帛) and was given the title of Marquis of Xuanling 宣陵侯.
After the conquest of the Qin capital Xianyang 咸陽 (modern Xianyang, Shaanxi), he was appointed inner gentleman (zhonglang 郎中), later to receptionist (yezhe 謁者).
During the ensuing war between Liu Bang and the hegemonial king Xiang Yu 項羽, he commanded an army and defeated some generals of Xiang Yu. He was therefore made Marquis of Changwen 昌文侯, continuing his military efforts.
As Censor-in-chief (yushi dafu 御史大夫) of Liu Bang, he was subordinated to the command of general Han Xin 韓信. He also took part in the battle of Gaixia 垓下 and the final defeat of Xiang Yu. In the following months, he led the last battles against the regional rulers that Xiang Yu had appointed regional rulers.
After the proclamation of Liu Bang to emperor of the Han dynasty in 202 BCE, Guan Ying was granted the title of Marquis of Yinyang 潁陽侯. As an experienced general, he took over command in the wars against Liu Bang's former supporters, the rebels Han Xin, Chen Xi 陳豨 and Ying Bu 英布. He also took over an important role in the securing of the provinces during the rebellion of the Lü family, relatives of Empress Dowager Lü 呂太后.
When Emperor Wen 漢文帝 (r. 180-157) mounted the throne he was for all his merits appointed Defender-in-chief (taiwei 太尉). In 177 he followed Zhou Bo 周勃 in the office of Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相). In the same year he undertook a campaign against the invading hordes of the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴. A year later he died of an illness. Guan Ying's posthumous title is Marquis Yi 懿侯.