Qian Liu was born in Lin'an County in 852, during the reign of Emperor Xuānzong of Tang. His father was named Qian Kuan, and his mother, who was from the same clan as his paternal grandmother, was Qian Kuan's wife Lady Shuiqiu. He had four younger brothers—Qian Qi (錢錡), Qian Biao (錢鏢), Qian Duo (錢鐸), and Qian Hua (錢鏵)—all of whom were described in the Spring and Autumn Annals of the Ten Kingdoms (十國春秋) as "brothers of the same father," implying, but not definitely stating, that they were not born of Lady Shuiqiu. In his childhood neighborhood, there was a huge tree. When he played with the other children in the neighborhood near the tree, he would sit on a large rock and order the other children to march in formations; the other children feared him and followed his orders. After he grew up, he did not have a legitimate job, so he became a salt privateer. He befriended several sons of the county secretary Zhong Qi (鍾起) and often drank and gambled with them. Zhong, however, disliked Qian and initially forbade his sons from associating with Qian until, on one occasion, a traveling fortuneteller informed both Qian and Zhong that Qian would one day be extremely honored. Only after that did Zhong allow his sons to associate with Qian. Zhong's sons often gave Qian money. During this time, Qian was described to be good at archery and using spears, and he had a basic understanding of mystical texts.