Nie Rongzhen was born in 1899 near Chongqing into a prosperous family which sent him to France on a work-study program in 1920. There he fell under the influence of Zhou Enlai. Zhou Enlai recruited him in 1921 while a student in technical-scientific studies in Belgium.
Nie joined the Communist Party in 1923, went to Moscow, where he spent six months in military study, returning to China to work in the Whampoa Military Academy under Zhou. At the beginning of the Long March he was 35, and "old man" a senior of the Red Army. He was a stalwart at the most costly and decisive battle crossing the Xiang River. The Red Army lost about 15,000 men a battle that lasted a week. He was a staunch supporter of Mao at the Zunyi Conference, speaking from a stretcher from wounds suffered at the Xiang River crossing.
At the founding ceremony of the People's Republic of China on October 1st, 1949, General Nie led four divisions of troops past the reviewing stand. After the formation of the PRC, he became the head of the Chinese Nuclear armaments program. He was named one of the Ten Chinese Marshals in 1955. Mao referred to him as "One of his Old Faithful." The Cultural Revolution cost him his job, but he worked with Marshal Ye Jianying in the post-Mao coup d'etat that ousted Jiang Qing (Mao's third wife) and the Gang of Four and brought Deng Xiaoping to power.