Hu Jintao was born in December 1942 in Shanghai, but he grew up in the provincial city of Taizhou, about 250 km (160 mi) northwest of Shanghai. Official biographies list his birthplace as the town of Jixi in Anhui province, his ancestral clan village. He is the oldest of three children, born to an educated family of affluent tea merchants. He was raised largely by his paternal grandmother and his great-aunt, since his mother died when he was five, and his father was operating the family tea shop in Shanghai. He has been described by his great-aunt as being reticent and studious. In 1959 he entered the elite Qinghua University in Beijing, where he studied hydroelectric engineering. He was the youngest student in his class. There he joined the Communist Party.
Hu met his wife, Liu Yongqing, at Qinghua University, and they were married after a long courtship. They have one son and one daughter. Liu works in the Beijing Municipal Construction Committee.
Hu has been labeled by intellectuals as "sunzi"—literally translated as "grandson" but also a colloquial synonym for "yes-man." There is a Chinese saying that describes the risk of showing one's political or ideological leanings: "The bird that sticks its head out gets shot." Some have said Hu reflects the proverb, in that his image as a political enigma reflects his cautious personality.