Born Ye Yiwei (simplified Chinese: 叶宜伟; traditional Chinese: 葉宜偉; pinyin: Yè Yíwěi; Wade–Giles: Yeh I-wei) into a wealthy Christian Hakka merchant family in Mei County, Guangdong his courtesy name was Cangbai (滄白). After graduation from the Yunnan Military Academy in 1919, he joined Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang (KMT). He taught at the Whampoa Military Academy, and in 1927 joined the Communist Party.
That year, he participated in the failed Nanchang Uprising and was forced to flee to Hong Kong with two other uprising leaders, Zhou Enlai and Ye Ting (unrelated to Ye Jianying), with only a pair of handguns to share between them. Shortly after, he faithfully carried out his assigned duties during the Guangzhou Uprising, although he had been opposed to it; upon this uprising's failure he was once again obliged to flee to Hong Kong with Ye Ting and Nie Rongzhen. However, Ye was far more fortunate than Ye Ting, who was made a scapegoat for the Comintern's failures and forced into exile. Ye was not blamed, and subsequently studied military science in Moscow.
After returning to China in 1932 he joined the Jiangxi Soviet, serving as Chief of Staff of Zhang Guotao's Fourth Front Army. However, after Zhang's fighters met up with Mao Zedong's force during the Long March, the two leaders disagreed on the subsequent move of the Chinese Red Army. Zhang insisted on turning southward to establish a new base in the regions inhabited by Tibetan and Qiang minorities. (This later proved to be a disaster, as Mao had anticipated, with Zhang losing over 75% of his men and retreating to the Communist base at Shaanxi.) During the two leaders' disagreement, Ye – though he was Zhang's Chief of Staff – sided with Mao; and instead of supporting Zhang unconditionally as he had during the Guangzhou Uprising, Ye absconded to Mao's headquarters with Zhang's code books and maps. As a result, Zhang's communications with Comintern were cut, while Mao was able to establish a radio link, leading to Comintern's acceptance of Mao's leadership in the Communist Party of China. Mao would never forget the Ye's contribution, observing later that "Ye Jianying saved the (Chinese Communist) Party, the (Chinese) Red Army, and the (Chinese) Revolution".
During the Long March, Ye assisted Liu Bocheng in directing the crossing of the Yangtze River at Anshunchang and Luding Bridge. After 1936, Ye became director of the offices that liaised with the KMT, first in Xi'an, then in Nanjing and finally in Chongqing. He worked together with Zhou Enlai in this capacity.
After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, Ye was placed in charge of Guangdong, which was to cost him his political career under Mao's reign. Ye understood that the economic conditions in Canton were very different from those in the rest of China, since most Cantonese landlords were peasants themselves who participated in production without exploiting their tenants. He therefore declined to dispossess the landlords, and instead protected their businesses and land. However, Ye's policies contradicted the general directives of the Party-mandated land reform, which emphasized class struggle. His policies deemed too soft, Ye and his local cadres were soon replaced by Lin Biao's, and a much harsher policy was implemented, with Ye's political career effectively over.
However, Mao did not forget what Ye had done for him during the Long March, and thus removed him only from political posts while preserving his military positions. As a result, until 1968, Ye remained active in various military functions, having been made a marshal in 1955. Ye was clever in using his military influence to provide limited support and protection for reformers like Zhao Ziyang, and he was responsible for interfering with assassination attempts on Deng Xiaoping during the Cultural Revolution.
After Lin Biao was overthrown and died in 1971, Ye's influence grew, and in 1975 he was appointed Defense Minister, taking Lin Biao's post. From 1973, he was also a Vice Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
He led the conspiracy of generals and Party elders that overthrew Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four; during initial planning at his residence, he and Li Xiannian communicated by writing, although they sat next to each other, because of the possibility of bugging.
Thanks to Ye's support of Chairman Hua Guofeng, he was confirmed as party vice-chairman at the Eleventh National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1977. Because the physical demands of Defense Minister were too great for the octogenarian Ye, he resigned from that position in 1978 and was appointed Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, filling a post left unoccupied since Zhu De's death in 1976. As such, Ye was China's ceremonial Head of State. Ye retired from this position in 1983 and in 1985 he withdrew completely from the Politburo. He died a little over a year later at the age of 89.
Ye had married six times and had six children. His sons include Ye Xuanping (born 1924), Ye Xuanning (叶选宁, 1938–2016), and Ye Xuanlian (叶选廉, born 1952). Ye's granddaughter Robynn Yip (born 1986), daughter of Xuanlian, is a professional musician based in Hong Kong. Republic of China
Order of Victory of Resistance against Aggression (1945)
People's Republic of China
Order of August the First (1st Class Medal) (1955)
Order of Independence and Freedom (1st Class Medal) (1955)
Order of Liberation (1st Class Medal) (1955)