He worked as a writer in Shanghai in the 1930s. After the Yan'an conference in 1938, he joined the Communist Party of China. With the creation of the People's Republic of China, he became a prominent journalist in Shanghai in charge of the Liberation Daily . He met Jiang Qing in Shanghai and helped to launch the Cultural Revolution.
Zhang first came to prominence as the result of his October 1958 ''Jiefang'' magazine entitled “Destroy the Ideas of Bourgeois Legal Ownership.” Mao Zedong ordered the reproduction of the article in ''Renmin Ribao'' , and personally wrote an accompanying “Editor’s Note” giving mild approval. In February 1967 he organized the Shanghai Commune. In April 1969 he joined the Politburo of the Central Committee and in 1973 he was promoted to the Standing Committee of the Politburo. In January 1975 he became second deputy Prime Minister. His attempt to promote himself higher in the party's hierarchy ended when he was arrested in October 1976. He was sentenced to death, together with Jiang Qing, in 1981, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Jiang died in 1991 shortly after being released on medical grounds.
He was released for medical reasons in August 2002 and was arranged to live in obscurity back in Shanghai.
Among those calling themselves Maoist outside China, a large perhaps majority portion still uphold the theories of Zhang Chunqiao. His most widely respected article is "On Exercising All-Round Dictatorship over the Bourgeoisie," in which he explained the bases and extent of the problem of the bourgeoisie in China and what would have to be done to prevent capitalist restoration.
In May 2005 it was announced that he had died of cancer the previous month.