Born in Huzhou, Zhejiang, Qian was named Qian Xia at birth and was given the courtesy nameDeqian (德潜). Qian trained in traditional Chinese philology. After receiving his university education in Japan, Qian held a number of teaching positions in mainland China. He was a student of Zhang Binglin; some of Zhang's works were copied and printed in Qian's remarkable seal script handwriting. As a philologist, Qian was the first to reconstruct the vowel system of Old Chinese in IPA.
A close friend of Lu Xun, Qian was a key figure in the May Fourth Movement. Despite his close relationship with the Chinese classics, he promoted the abolition of classical Chinese. He was also a strong supporter of Esperanto, at one time even proposed the substitution of Chinese by it. He and Liu Bannong did their best to promote vernacular Chinese, attacking such classical Chinese stylists as Lin Shu. His skepticism of the Chinese heritage was such that he at one time wanted to change his surname to Yigu (疑古 "suspecting things ancient"). He also did much important work with regards to the standardization of Simplified Chinese characters, Mandarin, and the design of pinyin.