Along with his cousin Dục Đức and brother Đồng Khánh, he had been taken in by Tự Đức who was unable to have children of his own. After the regicide of Emperor Hiệp Hoà, the court regents Tôn Thất Thuyết and Nguyễn Văn Tường acted quickly to install the fifteen-year-old prince as the new Emperor. Kiến Phúc was quickly enthroned on 1 December 1883 at five o'clock in the morning.
Emperor Kiến Phúc was often hampered by poor health and died in Kiến Thành Palace on July 31, 1884 - less than 8 months after ascending the throne.  His sudden death sparked rumors that the Emperor was poisoned by his adoptive mother, Tự Đức's Noble Consort Học phi and regent Nguyễn Văn Tường for he knew of their secret affair.