He attended missionary schools in Suzhou and Wuxi. He graduated from Tsinghua University in 1933 with a B. A. degree in foreign languages and literature. After graduation, he taught at Guanghua University in Shanghai, before he married Miss Yang Jiang in 1935. Soon after marrying, they sailed for England, where he studied at Oxford University.
Upon graduating with an M. A. degree in 1937, he left for Paris, where he took a refresher course in French literature at the Sorbonne. He returned to China in the autumn of 1938 and became a professor at Southwest Associated University in Kunming, Yunnan Province. Shortly thereafter, he was appointed chairman of the English department at the National Normal College in Lantian, Hunan Province.
However, while on home leave in Shanghai in 1941, he was forced to stay there when he was barred from leaving because of the War of Resistance Against Japan. While in Shanghai, he wrote his novel Fortress Besieged (1947) and a number of short stories which were later collected in Men, Beasts, and Ghosts (1946). These works, full of witty remarks and biting sarcasm, reveal the tendency of Chinese intellectuals to become depressed during war time, thus rendering them inactive. Generally considered a masterpiece, Fortress Besieged has been translated into many foreign languages. Also an essayist, Qian is known for his Marginalia of Life (1941).
Nevertheless, most of his time has been devoted to the study of literature. His Notes on Poetics (1948; revised 1984) is the remarkable fruit of Qian's comparative study of Chinese poetry with foreign metrical composition. He carried on his research work in the context of his academic appointments either at universities such as Jinan in Shanghai and Tsinghua in Beijing and at the Central Library in Nanjing.
He became a research fellow at the Research Institute of Literature affiliated with Peking University in 1953 and has retained the fellowship ever since even though the Institute has undergone several changes over the past few decades. His four volume work entitled A comparative Philological Survey of Chinese Classics (1979; revised and enlarged 1982) has been professionally praised in academic circles both in China an abroad, testifying to the scholarly efforts of Qian's later years.
His main works include "Cat" (1946), "Souvenir" (1946), Fortress Besieged (1947), Notes on Poetics (1948), and A comparative Philological Survey of Chinese Classics (1979).
In May, 2013, the Sungari International Auction Co. Ltd announced to auction his letters and manuscripts despite the strong opposition from his widowed wife, Yang Jiang.
The letters and manuscripts was belonged to Li Kwok-Keung, the former editor-in-chief of Hong Kong-based "Wide Angle" Magazine.
In June, 2013, the auction house announced to abandon the auction to show their reverence to Qian's widowed wife. The auction house stressed that it made the decision without the verdict from the court.