Tan Zhenlin was born in You County, Hunan. He joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1926, and participated in the Chinese Civil War since the Jinggang Mountains rebellion in the early days of the war. By 1949 he rose to the first deputy political commissar of the Third Field Army of the PLA.
Tan Zhnelin sat on the 8th (1956—1969), 10th (1973—1977), and 11th (1977—1982) Central Committee of the Communist Party. He served as the Vice-Chairman of the 4th and 5th Standing Committee of the NPC (1975—1978, 1978—1983).