Born to a medical family in Fuzhou, Fujian Province, Zhu was admitted to Peking University at the age of 17 in 1916, majoring in philosophy. Prior to the emergence of Marxism in the 1920s, anarchism and socialism were major influences among radical students. Zhu adopted radical anarchist and oeuvrierist views, was an active student writer and editor and pioneered the use of the 'big-character poster.' Taking active part in the student protests that erupted following the Paris Peace Talks and the Treaty of Versailles, and which developed into the patriotic and anti-feudalistic May Fourth Movement in 1919, Zhu was arrested by Beijing's warlord government in October. In his undergraduate years at Peking University, Zhu befriended the young Mao Zedong who was then an assistant in the University library. In the interviews with Edgar Snow published in Red Star over China Mao acknowledged the influence of Zhu's anarchism.
In 1921, Zhu expressed disillusion with radicalism and went to Nanjing to study with the Buddhist revivalists Taixu (1889–1947) and Ouyang Jingwu (1871–1943). Again disillusioned with the corruption among the Buddhist clergy, he wandered for a period of time before taking up a teaching position at Xiamen University in Fujian Province, resigning in 1924 to live in seclusion near West Lake in Hangzhou.
In 1929, Zhu Qianzhi received a stipend from the Central Research Institute, and travelled to Japan where he studied philosophy. In 1931 he took up a post at Jinan University, then in 1932 transferred to Sun Yat-sen University where he remained as professor until his death in 1972.
Zhu was an exceptionally productive scholar whose vast output covers Chinese, Western and Japanese philosophy, the history of China's intellectual impact on the West, the history of Chinese music, and autobiography. His early writings capture the romantic revolutionism of the May Fourth era. His works in English include Chinese Philosophy and the French Revolution and The European Renaissance and Chinese Civilization (1946).
Like many others of his generation, Zhu capitulated to the Maoist ideological machine in the 1950s, writing stereotyped denunciations of many former associates and their ideas. His Shijieguande zhuanbian: qishi zishu [A Changing Worldview - Autobiography at 70] (世界观的转变——七十自述) was completed in 1968 but not published until 1980 when the Cultural Revolution had concluded.
A useful source of information on Zhu's life and work is Huang Xianian, ed., Zhu Qianzhi xuanji (Selected writings of Zhu Qianzhi) Changchun: Jilin Renmin Chubanshe, 2004. (黄夏年，朱谦之选集, 长春:吉林人民出版社2004).