The only surviving son of the Xianfeng Emperor and the Empress Dowager Cixi, Tongzhi attempted political reform in the period of the Tongzhi Restoration. His first reign name was Qixiang (祺祥; Man: fengšengge sabingga), but this name was later abandoned by Cixi in favour of Tongzhi, a contraction of the classical phrase tóngguī yǔ zhì (Simplified Chinese: 同归与治, Traditional Chinese: 同歸與治), which means "to reform/restore together a state of order", although it has been interpreted as "to rule the state with a united mother/son team" (Simplified and traditional Chinese: 母子同治天下), which fits the description, as his mother, Empress Dowager Cixi, wielded the real power and ruled behind the scene. The traditional Chinese political phrase "attending audiences behind a curtain" chuí lián tīng zhèng (Simplified Chinese: 垂帘听政, Traditional Chinese: 垂簾聽政), which had already been used earlier in Chinese history, was used to describe Cixi's rule through her son, the Tongzhi Emperor. The phrase can still be heard in contemporary Chinese politics.
Tongzhi became emperor at the age of five when his father, the Xianfeng Emperor died. His birth mother, Empress Dowager Cixi, his father's Empress, the Empress Dowager Ci'an, and his uncle, Prince Gong, became regents after removing the former regent, Sushun.
Tongzhi married Lady Alute from a Mongol clan and died of smallpox at the age of 18. He was buried in the Eastern Qing Tombs in Hebei province. He had no sons to succeed him. Folklore says that Tongzhi died from a sexually transmitted disease, specifically syphilis, due to his alleged affairs with prostitutes outside of the palace, and that the smallpox diagnosis was given only because the mere discussion of sexually transmitted diseases in China was taboo. However, no credible evidence exists to substantiate the rumours.
Chinese Tongzhi ceramics and other courtly arts of the period are sometimes said to suffer from a diminishment of quantity and sometimes quality.