Emperor of China
House of Aisin-Gioro
11 November 1861 – 12 January 1875
Sushun, Zaiyuan, Duanhua and 5 other officials (1861)Empress Dowager Ci'an and Empress Dowager Cixi (1861–1875)
27 April 1856Forbidden City, Beijing, China (
Eastern Qing Tombs, Zunhua, China
January 12, 1875, Forbidden City, Beijing, China
Empress Xiaozheyi (m. 1872–1875)
Empress Dowager Cixi, Xianfeng Emperor
Guangxu Emperor, Empress Longyu, Kurun Princess Rongshou, Zaicheng, Zaiying
Daoguang Emperor, Empress Xiaoquancheng, Lady Fuca, Yehenara Huizheng
The Tongzhi Emperor (27 April 1856 – 12 January 1875), born Zaichun of the Aisin Gioro clan, was the tenth emperor of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty, and the eighth Qing emperor to rule over China. His reign, from 1861 to 1875, which effectively lasted through his adolescence, was largely overshadowed by the rule of his mother, Empress Dowager Cixi. Although he had little influence over state affairs, the events of his reign gave rise to what historians call the "Tongzhi Restoration", an unsuccessful attempt to stabilise and modernise China.
The only surviving son of the Xianfeng Emperor and Empress Dowager Cixi, the Tongzhi Emperor attempted political reform in the period of the Tongzhi Restoration. His first regnal name was Qixiang (祺祥; Manchu: Fengšengge Sabingga), but this name was later abandoned by Cixi in favour of "Tongzhi", a contraction of the classical phrase tong gui yu zhi (同归与治; 同歸與治), which means "restoring order together". An alternate interpretation reads it as "mother and son co-emperors" (母子同治天下), which fits the state of affairs, as the empress dowager wielded real power and ruled behind the scenes. The traditional Chinese political phrase "attending audiences behind a curtain" (垂帘听政; 垂簾聽政; chuí lián tīng zhèng) was coined to describe Cixi's rule through her son.
The Tongzhi Emperor became emperor at the age of five upon the death of his father, the Xianfeng Emperor. His father's choice of regent, Sushun, was removed in favour of a partnership between his mother Empress Dowager Cixi, Empress Dowager Ci'an, and his sixth uncle Prince Gong.
While there had most likely been hopes that the Tongzhi Emperor would become a leader like the Kangxi Emperor (who ascended the throne as a child in 1661), those hopes would soon come to naught, as the Tongzhi Emperor grew up to become an obstinate and dissolute young man.
In the fall of 1872, the teenage emperor married Empress Xiaozheyi and several concubines. The Tongzhi Emperor apparently had wanted to take up power immediately, prompting a quarrel at court regarding the dismantling of the regency and the timing of it. However, the two empress dowagers stuck by the intended date of February 23, 1873.
The day after the Tongzhi Emperor took up the reins of power, the foreign powers requested an audience with the teenage emperor. The request precipitated a sharp disagreement between the ministers at the foreign legations, who made it clear that they would not perform the ritual kowtow to the emperor, and the Zongli Yamen (foreign affairs ministry), regarding the protocol to be observed. The Qing government was also loath to hold the audience within the confines of the Forbidden City, eventually settling on the "Pavilion of Purple Light" at one of the lakeside palaces to the west of the Forbidden City, which is now part of Zhongnanhai. The audience was finally held on 29 June 1873. After the audience, however, the foreign representatives made it clear their annoyance of being received at a hall initially used by the Qing emperors to receive envoys of tributary states.
In the fall of 1874, the Tongzhi Emperor got into a clash with his ministers, which included his two uncles, Prince Gong and Prince Chun, largely over the emperor's plans to rebuild the Old Summer Palace at a time in which the empire was bankrupt, and over his dissolute behavior. The emperor reacted by firing the ministers, but Empress Dowagers Ci'an and Cixi intervened, and he had them reinstated. That December, it was announced that he was ill with smallpox, and the empress dowagers resumed the regency. He died on 12 January 1875, leaving no sons to succeed him.
The Tongzhi Emperor's death left the court in a succession crisis, as, although he was childless, his empress was reportedly pregnant. Eventually, the empress dowagers designated the Tongzhi Emperor's three-year-old cousin, Zaitian, as the heir to the throne. Zaitian was biologically Prince Chun's son, but was symbolically adopted as the Xianfeng Emperor's son to make him eligible to succeed the Tongzhi Emperor. Zaitian was thus enthroned as the Guangxu Emperor, with Empress Dowagers Ci'an and Cixi resuming their roles as regents. The Tongzhi Emperor's empress died a few months later.