The Indian and Chinese Rope Trick — why it wasn’t as impossible as it looked…

Colin Robinson
18 min readNov 8, 2018

A coiled cord is thrown at the sky, and stays up without visible support. A climber gets to the top and disappears. He returns to the Earth in bloody fragments. Then he is brought back to life.

It’s a visual sensation, which people have been writing about for over a thousand years. But could it actually have been performed? If so, how? If not, how did the story get started?

I’ve been looking at clues left by five writers about the trick from the medieval and early modern period: the Indian philosopher Śaṅkara (9th century), the Moroccan overland explorer Ibn Battuta (14th century), the Mughal emperor Jahangir (17th century), English seafarer Edward Melton (17th century), and the Chinese writer Pu Songling (18th century).

Jahangir, the emperor who wrote about mid-air vanishes in his memoirs.

Four of these five (all except Śaṅkara) state that they saw the trick themselves. They published in different languages — Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Classical Chinese, and Dutch — and wrote in very different styles. Their religions are as diverse as their nationalities: Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Confucian.

Their reactions to the spectacle were different too. Ibn Battuta and Edward Melton were shocked. Jahangir was pleased and impressed. Pu Songling wrote as a detached observer. Śaṅkara used the trick to illustrate a point about illusion and reality.

One of the five, Pu Songling, is remembered as a talented fiction writer. But unlike his account of the rope trick, his fictions are not usually written in the form of an eye-witness report. In any case, Pu Songling was writing about nine hundred years too late to have originated the idea of the trick.

More eye-witness accounts of the trick appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries. Right now I’m less interested in those, because the earlier reports contain enough clues, and are less vulnerable to suspicions of copycatting. A 19th century description of the trick could be influenced by a 14th century one, but not vice versa.

Rival explanations

What I do find interesting in the 19th century literature is the emergence of at least three rival explanations for reports about the trick:

Colin Robinson

Someone who likes sharing factual information and fragments of the big picture