He hailed from Wuxian 吳縣 (modern Suzhou 蘇州, Jiangsu), and became an orphan at the age of 2 sui. His mother re-married, for which reason Fan's childhood name was Zhu Yue 朱說. Grown up, he took the name of his late father, and went to the secondary capital Yingtian 應天 (today's Shangqiu 商丘, Henan), where he immersed into intensive studies of the Confucian Classics. His efforts were crowned by the jinshi degree which he obtained in 1015, and thus confirmed his famous statement that "man had first to experience the sorrows of the world before being able to enjoy happiness" (xian tianxia zhi you er you, hou tianxia zhi le er le 先天下之憂而憂，後天下之樂而樂). He was appointed administrator for public order (sili canjun 司理參軍) of the military prefecture of Guangde 廣德軍. Being recommended for promotion by Yan Shu 晏殊 (991-1055), Fan Zhongyan was made subeditor in the Imperial Archives (mige jiaoli 秘閣校理). Fan thus started a successful career that ended with the position of Vice Councellor-in-chief. He was known as an upright, honest and loyal person, and often contradicted the emperor and high officials. His Confucian education had inspired him to care for the welfare of the common people. Because of his diligence in the construction of dams and dykes in Taizhou 泰州, he was called Fan Gongti 范公堤 "Fan of the Public Dams". The local populace even erected a shrine in his memory. Fan Zhongyan's military career likewise brought him admiration even by his enemies, who believed that Fan "had a whole regiment in his belly", and called him the "scholar-general" (rujiang 儒將). In 1040, Fan and Huan Qi 韓琦 (1008-1075) were appointed vice military commissioners (jinglüe anfu fushi 經略安撫副使) of the circuit of Shaanxi 陜西, in which function Fan observed the military affairs of the prefecture of Tingzhou 延州, a border region to be defended against the Western Xia empire 西夏 (1038-1227).
The political atmosphere of the Qingli reign-period 慶歷 (1041-1048), Fan advocated the application of Confucian ideals in government practice. In 1043, Fan returned to the central government, where he was made Vice Military Affairs Commissioner (shumi fushi 樞密副使) and Assistant Administrator (can zhizheng shi 參知政事). He proposed to Emperor Renzong 宋仁宗 (r. 2023-1063) ten reform measures, including the clarification of promotion and demotion in policial offices (ming chuzhi 明黜陟), the suppression of favouritism (yi jiaoxing 抑僥幸), the refinement of the system of tribute students (jing gongju 精貢舉), the careful selection of senior officials (ze zhangguan 擇長官), the equalisation of public land (jun gongtian 均公田), the enhancement of agriculture and sericulture (hou nongsang 厚農桑), the amelioration of military preparedness (xiu wubei 修武備), the promotion of benevolence and trust (tui enxin 推恩信), the emphasis on imperial orders (zhong mingling 重命令), and the reduction of corvée service (jian yiaoyi 減徭役). Fan's set or "new policies of the Qingli reign-period" (Qingli xinzheng 慶歷新政) was the beginning of an age of reform that eventually culminated in the policy of Wang Anshi 王安石 (1021-1086). Later on, Fan requested to be appointed to offices in the local administration. He was prefect of Binzhou 邠州, Dengzhou 鄧州, Hangzhou 杭州 and Qingzhou 青州, where he died.
Fan's collected writings are called Fan Wenzhenggong ji 范文正公集. A supplement called Fan Wenzhenggong shiyu 范文正公詩餘 includes a further group of poems.
Fan retained his spirit for simplicity and austerity after he had rose to power, and had built "charity houses" (yizhuang 義莊, see zutian 族田 or yicang 義倉) to feed impoverished people. In his hometown in Suzhou, he built a school which was the focus of the "teachings of Jiangsu" (Wuxue 吳學). The statutes were enshrined in the famous text Yueyanglou ji 岳陽樓記.
In the scholarly realm, Fan Zhongyan rejected the traditional paragraph-and-sentence commentaries and had his own approach of commenting on the Classics. Zhang's spirit influenced many philosophers of the time, like Hu Yuan 胡瑗 (993-1059), Sun Fu 孫復 (992-1057), Shi Jie 石介 (1005-1045), Li Gou 李覯 (1009-1059) or Zhang Zai 張載 (1020-1077).
In the field of literature, Fan Zhongyan advocated the use of plain and simple, old-style language (guwen 古文) which was, in his eyes, better able to express fundamental issues than the refined and complex language that had emerged since the Southern Dynasties period 南朝 (420-589). Poetry had the duty to "reflect the transformative customs [of the people]" (ying yu fenghua 應于風化). Apart from the language, the themes of "modern" lyrics should include aspects of the daily lives of ordinary people, and not just the experience of the higher classes. His poems Haishang yuzhe 海上漁者, Yujia ao 漁家傲, Yujie xing 御街行, Tiyin deng 剔銀燈 or Sumu zhi 蘇幕遮 influenced contemporary writers like Su Shi 蘇軾 (Su Dongpo 蘇東坡, 1037-1101) or Wang Anshi. Fan's poetry uses mostly quatrains (siyan 四言), sometimes mixed with couplets (pai'ou 排偶), and is decorated with a magnificent scenery, which has been recited through the ages. Among his rhapsodies, most are of regular style (lüti fu 律體賦), but there are also some exceptions like Mingtang fu 明堂賦 or Lingwu fu 靈烏賦. Some pieces include aspects of the author's political thoughts, like Tianji chengzu fu 天驥呈才賦, Linchuan xianyu fu 臨川羨魚賦 or Jin zai rong fu 金在熔賦. Some of Fan’s official documents also make use of refined language using paired sentences (pianli 駢儷).
Fan was particularly interested in the practical application of the philosophy of the Yijing 易經 "Book of Changes", for instance, the gradual progress expressed in the hexagram jian 漸. Education was the prerogative for competence in governance, for which reason he admonished to perseverance in studies (quanxue 勸學). Indulgence in studies would yield knowledge of the inherent principles (dao 道) of the world, and thus the growth of talent (cai 才). The thoughts are preserved in his book Yiyi 易義. Yet the other Classics were to be understood as a set of texts, each of which contributed to certain aspects of human refinement and as a help to rule the empire. The Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" preserved the rules and standards of the ancient sages (shengren fadu 聖人法度), the "Book of Changes" the chances to discern security from threat (anwei zhi ji 安危之機), the Shijing 詩經 "Book of Songs" was a mirror for achievements and failure (deshi jiejian 得失借鑒), the Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals" helped to tell apart right from wrong (shifei bianming 是非明辨), the Liji 禮記 "Book of Rites" highlighted the principles of the world (tianxia zhidu 天下制度), and the Yuejing 樂經 "Book of Music" revealed the emotions of all beings (wanwu zhi qing 萬物之情).
Fan summarised the experience in history and advocated the rule of virtue (de zhi 德治). He stressed the importance of the "rule of man" (renzhi 人治) for the purpose of implementing moral governance by seeking talents, opening up new avenues of expression, and strict belief in the principle of rewards and punishments. He also hailed clear-cut eduction by which one could cultivate one's moral character through the study of Confucian writings. A ruler had to keep the principle of refraining from prodigy, but also to the generous when necessary. Fan’s thought influenced later generations of thinkers who founded the philosophy of Neo-Confucianism.