Between 1981 and 1983, Tian served as the deputy secretary general of the . He was promoted to the secretary general in 1983, and served as the of the State Council between 1983 and 1993.
Tian joined the the Communist Party of China at the age of 16. He has been a member of the National Congress of the Communist Party of China since 1982, and joined the in 1987.
Tian was elected the vice chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress in 1993 and 1998. Tian retired in 2002 at the age of 73.