A strong warrior with a dark face and a wiry beard, Zhou became caught up in the Yellow Turban Rebellion and joined the rebels. It was during this time that he first met Guan Yu, who impressed him with his courage and sense of honor. However, after the rebellion was crushed by Han Dynasty forces, Zhou became a renegade bandit. He inhabited Mount Woniu with another former Yellow Turban rebel, Pei Yuanshao, and became infamous as a warrior of great strength and skill. After encountering Guan Yu again on a mountain road, he swore his loyalty to the worthy general and was appointed to the rank of Guan Yu's weapon bearer. A skilled boatman, his talents were critical in helping achieve Guan Yu's water attack at the Battle of Fancheng. At Fancheng, he managed to capture Pang De during the flooding of the castle. He committed suicide after learning that Guan Yu and Guan Ping had been captured and executed by Sun Quan's forces.
After Guan Yu was made a deity, Zhou was made part of the holy trio, along with Guan Yu's adopted son Guan Ping. His face is often portrayed as coal black, a stark contrast to Guan Ping's pure white features, and Guan Yu's shades of red.