Xu was born in Jiangxi but raised in Anhui. When Xu was four, his father died, leaving him to help support the family by teaching as he studied for the imperial examinations. He ranked eighth in the second-division examinations. From 1905 to 1907, he studied law and government at the Jing Shi Guan, predecessor of the law college of Beijing University. He was appointed a Hanlin compiler in 1907. As head of the Law Codification Bureau of the Ministry of Justice, he modernized the judiciary system and laid the foundation for an independent judiciary in China.
Xu was appointed a judge in Beijing in 1908 and represented China at the Eighth International Conference on Prison Reform in Washington, D. C., in 1910. He visited Russia, Europe, and England, and then returned to China after the Oct 1911 revolt in Wuchang. He resigned from office and organized the Guomin Gongjin Hui at Tianjin with his younger brother, Xu Sun. They advocated a federal republic with a centralized legislature and judiciary and a decentralized executive administration. The Guomin Gongjin Hui merged with the Tong-meng-hui in 1912 to form the Kuomintang. Xu went to join the staff of Sun Yat-sen at Shanghai, where he practiced law for three years. Xu vowed to become a Christian if his prayers for President Yuan Shih-kai’s death were answered. After Yuan died in Jun 1916, Xu joined the Anglican Church.
Xu returned to Beijing to take office as vice minister of justice in 1916. He resigned in May 1917 after President Li Yuanhong, Yuan’s successor, ignored his advice not to dissolve the parliament. He again went to Shanghai.
While in Beijing, Xu had been elected president of the General Association for Religious Freedom, a united effort of different religions to lobby for the guarantee of religious freedom in the national constitution that was being drafted at that time. In 1917, Xu was appointed secretary-general of Generalissimo Sun Yat-sen’s military government at Guangzhou. He then became minister of justice in Guangzhou in Sep 1918. In that same year, Xu was chosen leader of the National Salvation Movement, a joint effort of Chinese and foreign Protestants. In 1919 Xu attended the Paris Peace Conference as an unofficial observer. He opposed the Treaty of Versailles because it was uncertain regarding the return of Shandong to China.
After returning to China, Xu was briefly chief editor of the Catholic Yshibao, published in Beijing and Tianjin. He resigned in May 1920 to serve as intermediary between Feng Yuxiang, the Christian general, and Sun Yat-sen. In May 1921, Xu was appointed head of the supreme court in Guangzhou.
Xu founded a newspaper, the Ping Jih Pao, in Shanghai in 1924. He also established the Fa-cheng Tahsueh, school of law and government. While Feng Yuxiang’s army occupied Beijing (Oct 1924 to Apr 1926), Xu was adviser to Feng and was appointed chancellor of the Sino-Russian University in 1925. He was elected to the Central Executive Committee of the Kuomintang in Jan 1926.
In Apr 1927, Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the right-wing Kuomintang, began a purge of Communists in areas under his control. Xu was on his wanted list because of his left-wing associations. Feng also began a purge of Communists in Henan in Jul 1927. A week later, the Kuomintang faction in Wuhan broke off their ties with the Communists. Xu thus found himself under suspicion from the two factions of the Kuomintang and the Communists. He retired from public life in Sep 1927 and settled in Kowloon, Hong Kong.
Xu, together with the Nationalist dissidents of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, set up a rival government in Fujian in 1933. Xu returned to Hong Kong after it collapsed in 1934. Following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, Xu was in the National Defense Council in Nangjing. He went to Hong Kong for surgery in 1939 and died there in Sep 1940.
The twice-married Xu (he was widowed in 1920) had two sons and three daughters. His widow, Shen I-pin, from Zhejiang, published a collection of his poems in 1943. Xu had written on a variety of subjects, including law, religion, calligraphy, and economics.
This article is reproduced, with permission, from A Dictionary of Asian Christianity, copyright © 2001 by Scott W. Sunquist, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- Boorman, Howard L., ed., Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, Vol. 2 (1968).