Born Ye Yiwei into a wealthy merchant family in Mei County, Guangdong, his courtesy name was Cangbai . He belonged to the Hakka minority. After graduation from the Yunnan Military Academy in 1919, he joined Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang . He taught at the Whampoa Military Academy and joined the communist party in 1927.
In 1927, he participated in the failed Nanchang Uprising and was forced to flee to Hong Kong with another two communist leaders of the uprising, Zhou Enlai and Ye Ting , with two handguns among them. Although strongly opposed the Guangzhou Uprising with other military commanders such as Ye Ting in the same year, they nonetheless faithfully carried out their assigned duties in the uprising, which of course ended in disaster again, and once again, Ye was forced to flee to Hong Kong, like other communist leaders such as Ye Ting and Nie Rongzhen. However, Ye Jianying was far more fortunate than Ye Ting who was made a scapegoat of the failure of the Comintern policy and forced into exile, Ye Jianying was not blamed and subsequently studied military science in Moscow.
After returning to China in 1932 he joined the Jiangxi Soviet. He served as Chief of Staff of Zhang Guotao's Fourth Front Army. However, after the Zhang's force met with Mao Zedong's force during the Long March, Comintern's plan of letting him help Zhang Guotao was dashed when Mao Zedong and Zhang Guotao disagreed on the next move of the Chinese Red Army. Zhang insisted on turning southward to establish a new base in the regions inhabited by and Qiang minorities, which later proved to be a disaster, causing Zhang to lose over 75% of his force and eventually forced him to return to the communist base in Shaanxi, as Mao correctly pointed out the way it should. As chief of staff of Zhang Guotao, Ye Jianying realized Mao was right but could not convice Zhang to go with Mao's plan, and instead of supporting Zhang unconditionally like he did during the Guangzhou Uprising, Ye Jianying sided with Mao Zedong by escaping to Mao's headquarter from Zhang's headquarter, taking all the codes books and maps with him. As a result, Zhang's communication with Comintern was cut while Mao established the radio link with the Comintern, which was forced to accept Mao's leadership in the Communist Party of China. Mao would never forget the contribution of Ye and in his own words, "Ye Jianying saved the Party, the red army, and the revolution".
During the Long March, Ye Jianying assisted Liu Bocheng in directing the crossing of the Yangtze River at Anshunchang and Luding Bridge, and became director of the offices that liaised with the KMT after 1936, 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 put in charge of Guangdong , which cost him his political career under Mao's reign. Ye understood that the economic condition in Canton was very different from the rest of China in that most Cantonese landlords were peasants themselves who participated in production and were not exploiting other tenant peasants, so they were not struggled, and their properties including business and land were protected. However, Ye's practice contradicted the general policy of the communist land reform in China, which emphasized on class struggle, and Ye's policy was deemed too soft. As a result, Ye and his local cadres were soon replaced by Lin Biao's, and a much harsher policy like in the rest of China was implemented, and Ye's political career under Mao was effectively over.
However, Mao did not forget what Ye had done for him during the Long March and thus only removed him from political posts while at the same time, retained his military post. As a result, until 1968, Ye would be active in various military functions, including Defense Minister, having been made a marshal in 1955. Ye Jianying was clever in using his military influence and power to provide some limited support and protection for some of the reformers such as Zhao Ziyang, and he was responsible for spoiling assassination attempts on Deng Xiaoping's life during the Cultural Revolution.
He led the conspiracy of generals and Party elders that overthrew Jiang Qing and the , and during the initial discussion of the planning at his residence with Li Xiannian, both communicated by writing even though they sit right next to each other because the possible threat of bugging. He retired as vice-chairman of the Party when the position was abolished in 1982, and left the Politburo in September 1985. He died at 89 in Beijing.