Zhou was born the third of four sons in Yixing, Jiangsu province. He graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in 1937. After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Zhou left Shanghai. By the end of the year, he reached the revolutionary base of Yan'an and joined the Communist Party. In August 1938 he was sent to Chongqing to conduct guerrilla warfare.
In the 1980s, he acted as a mentor to Jiang Zemin.