Xu came from a scholarly family in Shanxi province; his father Xu Rundi had obtained the highest degree in the imperial examinations and served as a secretary in the Grand Secretariat. The young Xu was fond of studying and joined his father in Beijing, where he met a number of prominent scholars of the day. Xu studied under the direction of his father and became an adherent of the Wang Yangming school of thought.
Having obtained the intermediary degree in the imperial exams in 1813, Xi Jiyu was initially unsuccessful in advancing in the exam system. In 1826, Xu Jiyu was finally awarded the highest degree in the imperial examinations and four years later he was appointed to a position in the prestigious Hanlin Academy. In the Academy, he worked under the direction of the chancellor, Mujangga, with whom he would work closely during following years. In 1836, he became prefect of Xunzhou in Guangxi province. During his tenure as a prefect Xu Jiyu submitted a number of memorials on domestic reform, which impressed the Daoguang Emperor and further helped Xu to rapidly rise through the ranks of the Qing civil service. Following the outbreak of the , Xu was appointed circuit intendant of a coastal prefecture in Fujian province, where he witnessed the war with his own eyes, an experience that convinced him that China needed to learn more about the West.
After the Opium War, Xu Jiyu was closely associated with Mujangga's "appeasement" faction in the imperial court and he was responsible for carrying out Mujangga's policies in the south. In 1846, Xu was appointed governor of Fujian Province, where he took charge of managing the opening of two ports that had been opened as a consequence of the Treaty of Nanjing. In Fuzhou, Xu Jiyu frequently met with foreign residents, who provided him with information on the world outside China.
The ascension of the Xianfeng Emperor in 1850 and the subsequent ousting of the Mujangga faction from the government would reversed fortunes of Xu Jiyu. In 1851, he was dismissed from his post on account of his close interaction with foreigners and he was forced to retire to his home province, where he stayed for almost a decade and a half. Xu's fortunes again changed after Empress Dowager's Cixi's coup d'etat in 1861 and afour years later, Xu was brought back into service, first working in the newly established foreign office, the Zongli Yamen, and later being put in charge of the language school Tongwenguan. Xu Jiyu retired in 1869 and retired to his home province, where he died four years later.
During his tenure in Fujian province, Xu Jiyu had the opportunity to interact with a number of Westerners who had just arrived in the province, such as the American missionary David Abeel, the and British consular officials, Rutherford Alcock and George Tradescant Lay, father of Horatio Nelson Lay. Xu also collected information on the West from missionary literature in Chinese. The information Xu collected was crucial to his publication of ''A Short Account of the Maritime Circuit'' in 1849. Although this work is lesser known than the work of his contemporary Wei Yuan, ''A Short Account'' was more accurate in its description of Western geography. The work was reprinted in 1866 and was also republished in Japan.