However weak as an emperor, Guangxu was inquisitive and possessed a keen and open mind about national and international affairs. He was interested in new ideas introduced to China at this time by Westerners, and particularly concerned about the national identity and survival of China in the midst of the menace of invasion from the West.
Zaitian was the second son of Yixuan (Prince Chun), and his primary spouse Yehenara Wanzhen, a younger sister of Empress Dowager Cixi. On 12 January 1875, Zaitian's cousin, the Tongzhi Emperor, died without a son to succeed him.
Emperor Guangxu was therefore raised under the total domination of Cixi, who maintained full influence over him. When Guangxu came of age in 1887, Cixi continued her control of the court and the government through political manipulation, even though she had been retired to her summer palace near Beijing. All important state papers and key government appointments reportedly still went to Cixi for final approval.
Moreover, the defeat and humiliation suffered by China after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 shocked Guangxu in such a way that he became immensely worried about China’s survival and wanted to seek his own way to avert its demise. Kang Youwei, a young and active scholar, who had similar concerns about China as Guangxu did, attracted the emperor's attention. Since 1890, Kang Youwei had repeatedly sent memorials to Guangxu expressing his ideas for urgent reform of the Chinese government. When Guangxu’s imperial tutor Weng Tonghe supported Kang’s advocacies in early 1898, Guangxu became more eager to pursue the new reforms. After January 29, 1898, Kang was granted a special right to have direct access to Emperor Guangxu for closer consultation on the reform. In May 1898, Kang presented his formal reform proposal to Guangxu, which included a national polity under Emperor Guangxu’s leadership modeled after Peter the Great of Russia and Emperor Meiji of Japan, reorganization of the national government based on the new ideas under the leadership of the new reform-minded intellectuals, and provincial governments to be given authority to initiate changes according to national needs.
Emperor Guangxu agreed with Kang's reform proposals and, on June 11, 1898, officially issued an imperial decree for the general government reform (known as the Hundred Day Reform) which lasted until September 20, when Empress Dowager Cixi unleashed her power and put an immediate stop to it. Guangxu was placed under house arrest and Kang Youwei fled to Japan. Cixi thereafter resumed her control of the government. Guangxu once again became nothing more than a puppet emperor under the shadow of his aunt until his death on November 14, 1908. He was succeeded by his nephew, Emperor Xuantong (or Puyi) in December 1908.
The Guangxu Emperor had one empress and two consorts in total. His principal spouse was Empress Xiaodingjing, while his two consorts were Consort Jin and Consort Zhen.
The emperor was forced by Empress Dowager Cixi to marry her niece (his cousin) Jingfen, who was two years his senior. Jingfen's father, Guixiang (Cixi's younger brother), and Cixi selected her to be the Guangxu Emperor's Empress Consort in order to strengthen the power of her own family. After the marriage, Jingfen was made empress and was granted the honorific title of "Longyu", meaning "auspicious and prosperous" after the death of her husband. However, the Guangxu Emperor detested Empress Longyu, and spent most of his time with his favourite concubine, Consort Zhen (Chinese: 珍妃), (better known in English as the "Pearl Consort"). Rumours say that in 1900, Consort Zhen was drowned by being thrown into a well on Cixi's order after Consort Zhen begged Empress Dowager Cixi to let the Guangxu Emperor stay in Beijing for negotiations with the foreign powers. That incident happened before Empress Dowager Cixi was preparing to leave the Forbidden City due to the occupation of Beijing by the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900. Like his predecessor, the Tongzhi Emperor, the Guangxu Emperor died without issue. After the Guangxu Emperor's death in 1908, Empress Dowager Longyu reigned in cooperation with Zaifeng (Prince Chun).