Born November 4, 1903, in Shantou, Guangdong, of churchgoing parents, Ni was called Shucu ("declare your ancestors' merits"). His parents moved to Fuzhou when he was six. (Later, he took the name Tuosheng, which is the sound produced when a time-watcher hits the bamboo gong at night.) Shortly after his birth, his parents returned to Fuzhou, where Ni received his early education in Chinese classical studies, with a private tutor for calligraphy and the Four Confucian Classics.
Ni’s father, the son of a Christian preacher, was active in his church, though his mother’s faith was nominal during his youth. He attended the Church Missionary society (CMS) Chinese vernacular school, St. Mark’s English High School, and starting in 1916 the junior high school at the Anglican Trinity College, which was run by the Church Missionary Society. At first, he was not interested in the required biblical instruction. In April, 1920, however, both he and his mother were converted through the ministry of Dora Yu (Yu Cidu), a Methodist evangelist.
Yu also introduced Ni to Margaret E. Barber (1869-1930), an independent English missionary who became the most important personal influence on his theological development. Barber had renounced her ties to the Anglican church and embraced a “life of faith,” depending on no one for financial support. Ni and his mother, having rejected as unbiblical their baptism as infants in the Methodist church, were re-baptized by Barber in 1921.
From the time of his conversion, Ni became a diligent student of the Scriptures and a constant witness to Christ. He joined with several other students of Trinity College, including Wang Zai (Leland Wang), to form a home fellowship. They split, however, when Ni insisted upon a total dissociation from Western denominations, which he had come to consider anti-Christian.
Disenchanted with Anglican doctrine and liturgy, Ni spent a year at Yu's Bible school in Shanghai, where he received basic training in Christian living. He was deeply influenced by the books in Barber’s library, consisting mostly of the Holiness literature of writers such as T. Austin-Sparks, Jessie Penn-Lewis, D. M. Panton, Andrew Murray, and F. B. Meyer. Jesse Penn-Lewis played by far the most prominent role in his own thinking, however. Like these writers, Ni would emphasize both a “rest of faith” and premillennialism.
He became familiar with the Brethren Movement through the writings of J. N. Darby, George Muller, William Kelly, and C. A. Coates. He read about major Christian leaders, also, such as Martin Luther, John Knox, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, George Whitefield, David Brainerd, John Henry Newman, D. L. Moody, Charles Finney, and C. H. Spurgeon.
Throughout his career, Ni engaged in extensive literature ministry. He began in 1923 by editing Revival, a devotional magazine for free distribution, followed in 1926 by The Christian, which dealt with “truths about church and matters of prophecy” and gained wide circulation in only a few years. In 1926, when he was suffering from tuberculosis, Ni began his first major book, The Spiritual Man, which sought to explain spiritual formation in terms of biblical psychology, especially the radical distinction between “soul” (self-consciousness) and “spirit” (God-consciousness). Published in 1928, the three-volume work has been called basically a translation of Penn-Lewis’s Soul and Spirit, published ten years earlier, though Ni did not make that clear. These early efforts laid the theological foundation for his future teaching ministry.
For a variety of reasons, including the anti-Western movement of the 1920s, many Chinese Christian leaders were seeking ways to form indigenous churches that would be free from Western missionary control. Having moved to the International Settlement in Shanghai in 1926, Ni constituted in 1932 a group of “apostolic” co-workers that would lead what became the Little Flock Movement: Wang Peizhen (Peace Wang) and Li Yuanru (Ruth Lee), with Ni himself as supreme. They soon grew from a small household gathering to a network of local churches.
Rather than becoming an itinerant evangelist, Ni decided to build a solid base in Shanghai, whence churches could be planted all over China. Ni had a team of fellow workers, including Witness Lee, Simon Meek, and Faithful Luke, who helped to start local churches in many cities in Southeast Asia. In his rejection of all denominationalism, Ni stressed the principle of locality, i.e., there is only one true church in each city. “Despite his weak constitution, Ni’s magnetic personality and his remarkable ability to speak . . . mesmerized the group, and he soon emerged as their indisputable leader” (Xi, 167). In the chaotic years of the Republic, Ni’s emphasis upon a deep spiritual life and on the certainty of the return of Christ evoked a strong response from spiritually hungry people, including many students and intellectuals.
Ni's theological outlook was influenced by the Brethren tradition. In 1933, he visited the Brethren communities in England and the United States, though he later severed this relationship because he considered their principle of Christian fellowship too restrictive and their emphasis on perfection in Christ too excessive. In 1938, he attended the Keswick Convention, and during his European tour he gave a series of talks on Romans 5-8, which were published as his popular book, The Normal Christian Life. He was briefly exposed to the Pentecostal movement through a missionary of the China Inland Mission in the 1930s, but he did not speak in tongues and later rejected what he considered the emotional excesses of the charismatic meetings.
When he married Zhang Pinhui in 1934, there was an expose in the media about his alleged romantic involvement with other women, which damaged his reputation, so he stepped down as leader of the movement, handing it over to elders whom he had previously appointed. He resumed his position the next year.
After the work had grown to more than two hundred local assemblies around China, Ni set forth the basic organizational principles in Rethinking Our Mission. Each assembly would be autonomous and led by its elders, who were appointed by the “apostles.” The whole movement of Local Churches would be led by the “workers,” or apostles, considered to be chosen by God as his “overseers.” 1942, Ni was expelled from leadership for several reasons: His increasing, and finally full-time, work with his brother’s pharmaceutical company; multiple instances of shady business practices; and the exposure of ongoing sexual immorality with female co-workers and other women, including prostitutes.
After the war, Ni published several books on ecclesiology, including The Orthodoxy of the Church, Authority and Obedience, and On Church Affairs, which stated the “Jerusalem Principle,” according to which the authority of elders in local assemblies was restricted and the entire movement came under direct central control. These works represented a major change in emphasis, from the spiritual life of the individual and the local church to the authority of “apostles,” of whom Ni was pre-eminent, to direct the entire organization and its work.
With a great deal of help from Li Changshou (Witness Lee), he was restored to his previous leadership position in 1948, and announced a program of evangelism by dispatching teams of unreached areas of China. By 1949, there were over 700 local churches with a combined membership of 70,000.
A campaign of “handing over” possessions to the local church was promoted in 1947, ostensibly to fund evangelistic migration of believers. At the same time, Ni was preaching absolute, even unthinking, submission to church leaders, especially himself. Only those who had been trained by Ni and Li could become leaders in the local churches. Believers were fired with zeal to give all they had to the work of the Lord, and hundreds of thousands of dollars were contributed. Some of the money went toward the construction of a very large meeting place for the Shanghai assembly, whose numbers had reached 1,700.
After the Communist victory, the government began to take control of Christian churches. A “Christian Manifesto” called upon believers to sever all ties with “imperialist” foreign churches and organizations. Ni used signatures which had been gathered for another purpose to add to the number of those who had subscribed to the Manifesto. When the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) was established in 1951, Ni supported the new organization, publicly “repenting” of his previous inadequate grasp of indigenous principles, and advocating submission to the government.
Ni was arrested in Manchuria in April, 1952 on charges of tax evasion and corrupt business practices. Four years later, in a public trial in Shanghai, he was found guilty on political grounds and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. His followers were devastated by revelations of his dishonesty both in business and in church dealings, and even more by his sexual transgressions, which started in the 1920s and continued into the 1950s. Disbelief turned into grief as the evidence (including photographs, Ni’s signed confession, and admission of guilt by at least one female co-worker) became conclusive. At the same time, Ni’s ten-year absence from the Lord’s Table was explained by his admission that he had had a guilty conscience. He died of natural causes in prison in 1972.
Some of his churches joined the Three-Self Patriotic Movement; others went underground.
Ni left the Chinese church with a body of teaching on based on a trichotomy of the human constitution---body, soul, and spirit, with primacy in the Christian life to be given to the spirit. The goal was to be restoration of communication between God's Spirit and the human spirit. He regarded sanctification as the lifelong process of the spirit's controlling the soul and the soul's directing the body. Through his powerful spoken teaching and prolific writing, Ni greatly influenced the conservative wing of the Chinese church.
Publications by Ni include many volumes translated into English from notes of his oral instruction taken down at the time. Some of the most influential are The Normal Christian Life; The Normal Christian Church Life; Sit, Walk, Stand (an exposition of Ephesians); Changed into His Likeness; and a series of booklets issued by Living Streams Ministry, the publishing arm of Witness Lee’s Local Church movement in America. The theological vocabulary he formulated has become an important ingredient in today's popular Chinese theology.
Several commendatory biographies of Watchman Ni have added to the enormous influence of his writings. He is remembered mostly for his early emphases: life centered upon God; devotion to Christ; reliance on the Holy Spirit; the centrality of the church; memorization of, and meditation upon, Scripture; and the indigenous nature of the Local Church. Among those who knew of Ni’s serious faults and failings, there is an awareness that no mere man should be looked to as a teacher of truth or a paragon of virtue. Others see the dangers of concentrating power in the hands of a single person or small group of elite leaders.
In China, churches connected with the Little Flock constitute a major segment of both the unregistered and, in some areas, TSPM congregations. Under the leadership of Witness Lee and others, the Local Church movement which he founded spread overseas, especially in Taiwan and the United States.