Hong Rengan was an important leader of the Taiping Rebellion. He was the cousin of the movement's founder and spiritual leader Hong Xiuquan. His position as the Prince Gan resembled the role of a Prime Minister. He is a noted figure in history because of the sweeping reforms attempted under his rule, and because of his popularity in the West.
When Hung Xiuquan called for his cousin Hong Rengan to come to Nanjing to help him rule, the Taiping administration was entrenched in a bitter power dispute. The powerbase of the movement had largely become split between the devout Taiping religious followers in Nanjing and the generals commanding the armies outside the city. Before his arrival, a previous power struggle erupted into a battle that killed over 20,000 Nanjing residents and a leader of the Taiping government. It was in this environment that Hong Rengan was given the second most important position in the Taiping movement; only Hung Xiuquan was more powerful.
Hong Rengan had been given his position because of his education. During the early years of the rebellion, he was separated from the rebellion and had to flee to Hong Kong, where he met the Swedish missionary Theodore Hamberg. Hong provided Hamberg with important information on the Taiping rebellion, which Hamberg later used to write a book about the movement. Hong came to Nanjing with a thoroughly Protestant mindset. This was in contrast to the largely Old Testament-dominated beliefs of the Taiping founders. Hong reformed the worship and prayer services into Protestant-style ceremonies. He also discouraged the use of the word "barbarian" to describe Westerners. These were a few of his early reforms.
However, most of Hong's energy was dedicated to centralizing the authority of Taiping administration and revitalizing its military successes. He advocated building railroads, gaining the support of Western powers, and building banks in the areas under Taiping rule. Because of his beliefs, Hong is sometimes noted as the first modern Chinese nationalist, and he was mentioned in early writings by both the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of China. These ideas, along with his clearly Protestant belief system, garnered the Taiping rebellion interest in Western circles. This interest would wane as Taiping troops moved closer to Shanghai and actively enforced their ban on opium within their realm.
Most of Hong Rengan's reforms were never implemented. Though he had shown strategic talent in the few campaigns he commanded, his ideas clashed with the pre-eminent military prince of the Taipings, Li Xiucheng. In a large mission to retake the upper Yangtze River, Li refused the orders of Hong and returned to Nanjing. The failure of this mission allowed Qing troops to mount a massive blockade of the Taiping area of control and eventually led to the collapse of the rebellion. Hong Rengan's rule was soon reduced to decrees endorsed by Hung Xiuquan, but they were never followed or enforced outside the city.
In 1864 Hong Xiuquan was found dead and the city of Nanjing soon fell to Qing forces. Hong Rengan and the other Taiping leaders fled the city and attempted to maintain their rule through the decrees of Hong Tianguifu, son of Hung Xiuquan. They were caught and sentenced to death. As seen in his confession before execution, Hong Rengan was the only prince of the Taiping rebellion to maintain his loyalty to the movement and never recant. He was executed on November 23, 1864, shortly after the execution of Hong Tianguifu and Li Xiucheng.