Zhang Tingyu was born in Tongcheng in Anhui province. In 1700, he was awarded the highest degree (jinshi) in the imperial examinations and shortly afterwards he was appointed to the Hanlin Academy. He subsequently rose through the ranks in the Qing civil service and served under the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong emperors. Zhang Tingyu was especially trusted by the Yongzheng emperor, who made him one of the first members of the Grand Council, an informal state organ which would, in due course, develop into the emperor's own privy council. His colleagues included renowned figures like Ma Qi.
Zhang was an upstanding civil service officer and highly praised for both his upright character and principled background. Having considerable skill in literature, he compiled the History of Ming in 1739. There is some confusion as to whether he or another trusted officer Longkodo was the principal announcer of the will of Kangxi. Zhang was the only official to survive the battles of succession from Kangxi to Yongzheng to Qianlong, and was trusted by all three emperors.