Yizhu was born in 1831 at the Imperial Summer Palace Complex, 8 kilometers northwest of the walls of Beijing, and was the fourth son of the Daoguang Emperor. His mother was the Imperial Concubine Quan (全贵妃), of the (Manchu) Niuhuru clan, who was made Empress in 1834, and is known posthumously as Empress Xiao Quan Cheng (孝全成皇后).
Chosen as the Crown Prince in the later years of Dao Guang's reign, Yizhu had reputed ability in literature and administration which surpassed most of his brothers. He succeeded the throne in 1850, at age 19, and was a relatively young Emperor. He inherited a crumbling dynasty that faced challenges not only internally, but also from Europeans. The situation was not reflected at all by his reign title, Xianfeng (咸丰/咸豐), which means "Universal Prosperity." The Taiping Rebellion began in 1851, and spread to several provinces with amazing speed. Xianfeng dispatched several prominent mandarins, like Zeng Guofan, and Imperial relatives, like the Mongol general Senggelinqin, to crush the rebellion, with limited success. Several Muslim rebellions in the southwest began in 1855.
As western imperialism was carving a path through Asia, China was not spared. The European powers rightly saw the weakening Qing Empire as ripe for exploitation. European forces, led by France, after inciting a few battles on the coast near Tianjin, of which not all were decisive victories, attempted "negotiation" with the Qing Government. Xian Feng, under the influence of the Concubine Yi (懿貴妃, later the Empress Dowager Cixi), believed in Chinese superiority and would not agree to any colonial demands. He delegated Prince Gong for several negotiations that failed to solve any significant problems. On October 18, 1860, the western forces went on to loot and burn the Imperial Summer Palaces of Qīngyī Yuán (清漪园/清漪園) and Yuánmíng Yuán (圆明园/圓明園).
While negotiations with the European powers were in deliberation, Emperor Xianfeng and his Imperial entourage fled to the northern palace in Jehol. Becoming more ill physically, Xian Feng's ability to govern also deteriorated, leading to competing ideologies in court that eventually formed two distinct factions — those under the rich Manchu Sushun, Princes Yi and Zheng; and those under the Concubine Yi, supported by Gen. Ronglu and Yehenala Bannermen.
Xianfeng had a large sexual appetite. He was a lover of opera and alcohol, and often became violent with his servants. He was known to smoke opium.
China's Age of Fragility: As China Reclaims Its Central Role in the World, Robert Bickers Appeals to Britons and Others in the West to Take Account of the Legacy Left by the Country's Difficult 19th Century
Mar 01, 2011; [ILLUSTRATION OMITTED] One recent late November I took a stroll through the grounds of the Yuanmingyuan, the 'Old Summer Palace',...