Born in the Forbidden City in Beijing, as the second son of Yongyan (永琰), who became the Jiaqing Emperor in 1796. He was given the name Mianning (綿寧) at birth (which was later transformed into Minning). His mother, the principal wife of Yongyan, was Lady Hitara of the (Manchu) Hitara clan, who became empress when Jiaqing ascended the throne in 1796.
Mianning was well liked by his grandfather the Qianlong Emperor and would frequently accompanied the elderly emperor on hunting trips. One such trip at the age of nine yielded a successful hunt of a deer which greatly amused Qianlong. In 1813, while a prince, Mianning also played a vital role in repelling and killing White Lotus invaders that stormed the Forbidden City which earned Mianning important merits in securing his claim for the throne.
In September 1820, the age of 38, Mianning inherited the throne after his father, the Jiaqing Emperor, suddenly died of unknown causes. He inherited a declining empire with Western imperialism encroaching upon the doorsteps of China. During his reign, China experienced major problems with opium, which was imported into China by British merchants.
Opium had started to trickle into China during the reign of his great grandfather Emperor Yongzheng but was limited to approximately 200 boxes annually. By Emperor Qianlong's reign, the amount had increased to 1000 boxes, 4000 boxes by Jiaqing's era and more than 30,000 boxes during Daoguang's reign.
He made many edicts against opium in the 1820s and 1830s, which were carried out by the famous Lin Zexu. Lin Zexu's effort to halt the spread of opium in China was quite successful, but, with the development of the First Opium War, Lin quickly fell out of favour and the Daoguang emperor suddenly removed Lin's authority and banished him to Xinjiang.
Daoguang's decision was a blow to China's effort to halt the influx of opium and deepened the Europeans' resolution to enter the vast Chinese market which eventually led to the First Opium War against Britain. Technologically and militarily inferior to the European powers and hobbled by the incompetence of the Qing government, China lost this war and was forced to surrender Hong Kong at the Treaty of Nanking in August 1842. Henceforth, Daoguang became the first emperor of the Qing dynasty to have lost a portion of its sovereign territories.
Daoguang failed to understand the resolution of the Europeans and although the Europeans were outnumbered, outgunned and were thousands of miles away from home, Daoguang did not take advantage of these factors. He had a poor understanding of the British and the industrial revolution that Britain had undergone, preferring to turn a blind eye to the rest of the world. It was said that Daoguang did not even know where Britain was located in the world. His thirty-year reign introduced the initial onslaught by western imperialism and foreign invasions that would plague China, in one form or another, for the next one hundred years.
Daoguang died on February 25, 1850 and was succeeded by his eldest surviving son.