Xu Wenli was born in 1943 in Anfu, Jiangxi Province. In 1963, after finishing high school with an outstanding performance, Xu decided not to apply for college because of his dissatisfaction with China’s higher education system. Determined to be an independent thinker and learner, Xu taught himself philosophy, political science, history, and world literature, and supported himself on several study trips to the Chinese countryside from 1963 to 1964.
Between 1964 and 1969, Xu served in the People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force. After retiring from the military, Xu worked at the Beijing Railway from 1969 to 1981. He became a key organizer and active participant in the Chinese Democracy Wall movement of 1978–9, when thousands of people put up posters on a long wall in Beijing to protest political and social issues; from November 1978 to January 1980, Xu served as chief editor of April Fifth Forum, the first and longest-lasting journal of the movement, which was privately run by Chinese civilians.
On April 9, 1981, Xu was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison for organizing counterrevolutionary groups in the People’s Republic of China. He was released in May 1993, after which he dedicated his time traveling to prepare for, and advance ideas toward, the formation of a Chinese opposition party. In November 1997, Xu proposed a political program to “end the single-party system, establish the Third Republic, rebuild constitutional democracy, and protect human rights and freedom” in China. He also advocated the political route of transparency, rationality, peace, and nonviolence, and the establishment of an opposition force with political dissidents from across the nation.
In 1998, Xu, together with several dozens of political activists, founded the Democracy Party of China. He was soon arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
On December 24, 2002, Xu was exiled to the United States on grounds of medical parole. He later received an honorary doctorate degree from Brown University and began working at the university's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs as a senior research fellow. Now retired, Xu lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with his family.
The personal papers include Xu’s manuscripts and writings on China’s democratization, written while he was in jail; correspondence with domestic and foreign friends, including senior officials under the George W. Bush administration; photos related to Xu’s activities within and outside China; website materials related to Xu’s political activities; and other miscellaneous materials related to Xu and China’s democratization movement. The Xu Wenli collection not only bears witness to the personal hardship and struggle Xu long suffered, but it also provides invaluable source materials for future generations that document the uneasy path for China’s democratization and liberation in the past century.