The Indian and Chinese Rope Trick — why it wasn’t as impossible as it looked…
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).
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.
What I do find interesting in the 19th century literature is the emergence of at least three rival explanations for reports about the trick:
1. The group hallucination/ hypnosis theory, which goes back to Helena Blavatsky’s book Isis Unveiled (1877). According to this theory, the trick was the work of magicians who work directly on the minds of the spectators, rather that on their eyes.
2. The optical illusion theory, pioneered by the stage magician John Nevil Maskelyne (1878). He suggested use of concave mirrors as the likely explanation for seemingly impossible mid-air vanishes.
3. The hoax/fable theory — the idea that the eye-witness reports of the trick are all unreliable. Maskelyne moves towards this in his later writings (1891, 1912)
In 1890, the Chicago Tribune published a story in the form of an eye-witness report, which seemed at first sight to prove the correctness of the hypnosis theory. They later admitted that their story was a hoax. The hoax report was used by Maskelyne to discredit eye-witness accounts generally, and the hoax / fable theory has since become the mainstream view.
The problem with the hoax / fable theory is that it doesn’t explain the substance of the supposed fable. How did stories about the trick get started?
Mircea Eliade, the 20th century historian of religion, saw similarities between reports about the rope trick and myths of shamanic journey, but he also noted a difference —the described rope trick is a spectacle, the shamanic journey is not. (Eliade 1964)
A sceptic’s dream
Peter Lamont is the author of a 2004 book The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick. He is an industrious, ultra-sceptical researcher with a particular interest in the Chicago Tribune hoax.
Unfortunately he fails to engage seriously with early and non-western sources.
I’m not the first to notice this. Lamont’s treatment of Śaṅkara has been well critiqued by Jim McKeague, an Australian historian of magic.
Lamont’s book ends with the moment he saw the rope-climber’s mid-air vanish in an otherwise realistic dream. A moment to remember.
But was the mid-air vanish ever more than a dream, and if so, how was it done? Maybe the early writings can help us answer these questions…
Śankara’s non-real climber
The 9th century philosopher Ādi Śaṅkara mentions the rope trick while commenting on a verse in the Māndūkya Upaniṣad about illusion (māyā). He says:
The juggler throws the thread up in the sky, climbs by it with his arms, disappears from the sight (of the spectators), engages himself in a fight (in the sky) in which his limbs having been severed, fall to the ground and he rises up again. The on-looker, though witnessing the performance, does not evince any interest in… the reality… there is the real juggler who is other than the rope and the one that climbs up the rope… he, the juggler, remains on the ground unseen…
The juggler, the skilful entertainer, becomes two-fold. There is the real entertainer who remains on the ground, and a not-so-real one who climbs the rope.
Entertainers who could do that would have a way of presenting a mid-air vanish. After all, it’s easier to make something or someone disappear if they weren’t actually there in the first place.
But how did the real juggler produce the non-real one?
Ibn Battuta in Hangzhou
Ibn Battuta was a Muslim scholar of the 14th century, a much travelled Moroccan. Historians to this day respect his work as an observer and recorder of the customs and practices of the countries he visited. One of those countries was China, then ruled by the Yuan dynasty — descendants of Genghis Khan. Here’s his account of something he saw in Hangzhou, at the palace of commander Qurtay:
That same night a certain juggler… took a wooden ball with holes in which there were long leather thongs, and threw it into the air. It rose right out of our sight, for we were sitting in the middle of the palace court, during the season of intense heat. When nothing but a short piece of the cord remained in his hand, he ordered one of his apprentices to go up the rope, which he did until he too disappeared from our sight. The juggler called him three times without receiving any reply, so he took a knife in his hand, as if he were enraged, and climbed up the rope until he disappeared as well. The next thing was that he threw the boy’s hand to the ground, and then threw down his foot, followed by his other hand, then his other foot, then his trunk, and finally his head. After that he came down himself, puffing and blowing, with his clothes all smeared with blood… he took the boy’s limbs, placed them each touching the other, and gave him a kick, and up he rose as sound as ever.
A dramatic account, which also contains valuable details. The show was at night, in a palace court.
Ibn Battuta was physically affected by what he saw:
I was amazed and took palpitation of the heart… so they administered some potion to me which removed my distress. The qádí Afkhar ad-Dín was sitting beside me, and he said to me: ‘By God, there was no climbing or coming down or cutting up of limbs at all; the whole thing is just hocus-pocus.’
Jahangir, of the Mughal dynasty, was a 17th century emperor of India. He wrote an autobiography, in which he mentions seeing an even stranger version of the rope trick. It was one of a series of 28 spectacles presented for the emperor and his emirs by a team of seven entertainers from the province of Bengal.
They produced a chain of fifty cubits in length, and in my presence threw one end of it towards the sky, where it remained as if fastened to something in the air. A dog was then brought forward, and being placed at the lower end of chain, immediately ran up, and reaching the other end, immediately disappeared in the air. In the same manner a hog, a panther, a lion, and tiger, were alternately sent up the chain, and all equally disappeared at the upper end of the chain.
That was the end of the trick. But in another trick, the same team of entertainers appeared to cut a man up, put a sheet over him, and brought him back to life again.
The words “as if fastened to something in the air” suggest that the emperor had a shrewd idea how they did the first part of the rope trick (or the “chain trick” as Peter Lamont thinks it should be called). But what of the rest? Perhaps there is a clue in another of the spectacles presented by the Bengali team:
One night, and in the very middle of the night, when half this globe was wrapped in darkness… from beneath the sheet drew out a resplendent mirror, by the radiance of which a light so powerful was produced, as to have illuminated the hemisphere to an incredible distance round…
The unusual brightness suggests that it was a concave mirror. Concave mirrors concentrate light in a way other mirrors don’t. If that’s what it was, the performers must also have had a good strong light source feeding into the mirror.
Maskelyne’s mirror theory
Which brings us back to John N. Maskelyne’s 1878 optical illusion theory:
These apparent effects were, doubtless, due to the aid of concave mirrors, the use of which was known to the ancients, especially in the East, but they could not have been produced in the open air.
When Maskelyne wrote that, he was commented specifically on the trick with the five animals disappearing in mid-air — Jahangir’s account. Maskelyne misattributed it to Ibn Battuta, but that does not diminish the relevance of the concave mirror theory to the questions we are looking at.
After all, the optical principles that govern mirrors do not discriminate between tigers and people. If a tiger vanish can be effectively produced using a concave mirror, so can a human vanish.
It’s been 140 years since Maskelyne proposed the concave mirror theory, and yet serious discussion of it is hard to find. Maskelyne himself dropped the mirror idea without explaining why. In his later writings about magic in India (1891, 1912), he concentrated instead on the power of rumour and the supposed unreliability of the witnesses.
The mirror theory hasn’t been completely forgotten though. Two places I’ve seen it mentioned are Robert Carroll’s Skeptics’ Dictionary, which grudgingly acknowledges it as a possibility; and Shengyu Wang’s 2017 dissertation on Pu Songling, which is where I found its source. Jim McKeague also acknowledged it as a possibility in the comments section of his website.
Perhaps it’s time to look a little further about what a concave mirror can do, what other equipment would have been needed to present mid-air vanishes with one, and what sort of surroundings it would work in…
Why a concave mirror?
Unlike a flat mirror, a concave mirror can project an image onto a flat opaque surface, such as a piece of paper, a wall, a ceiling, or an area of stretched cloth. The technical term is “screen”.
What is the advantage of that? Well, a direct image from a mirror looks different from different angles. An image projected from a mirror onto a screen looks the same to anyone on the same side of the screen the image is coming from. For instance, if a ceiling is used as the screen, and the image is projected from below, it will look the same to everyone looking up at the ceiling.
In short, screen-projection comes in very handy if you want to show a group of people the same image.
The source of the image can be anything which mirrors can reflect — i.e. anything (or anyone) visible. This is called “real-time projection” and is the simplest sort. You don’t need a device for taking pictures, and you don’t need a way of making transparencies.
Using real-time projection, you can show your audience the image of an acrobat above their heads, while the real acrobat is somewhere else — for instance at ground level, or just under. Or, instead of a human acrobat, you can show them an image of a dog, if you have a dog; or a tiger, if you have a tiger.
Like a normal mirror image, the mirror-to-screen image is in full colour, and imitates the movements of its source. If the hidden performer is holding a cord, making the motions of a rope climber, the image will do the same.
Ventriloquism is made easy — when the hidden performer talks or shouts, the image on the screen will move its mouth in sync.
When the real acrobat or tiger moves out of the light, the overhead image will vanish.
An earlier imager…
The concave mirror is not the simplest device which can produce a screen image — that honour goes to the camera obscura, which focuses light through a small aperture, known as a pinhole, onto a surface surrounded by darkness. The camera obscura has been known since ancient times, and its role in world history is a big topic.
For instance, it has been cogently argued that the Mysteries of Eleusis in ancient Greece involved a camera obscura projecting images of deities into a darkened room for initiates to see. (Gatton 2017)
A limitation of the camera obscura is that the pinhole has to be small to do its job, which restricts the amount of light it can collect. A concave mirror can have more surface area, collect more light, and produce more striking visual effects.
Did they have concave mirrors then?
Maskelyne was right about concave mirrors being “known to the ancients, especially in the East”. The properties of concave mirrors have been known in China since the Warring States period, 476–221 BCE, when they were explained in the book of Mozi (Needham, 1962).
Chinese use of a mirror to project an image goes back at least as far as the Han Dynasty (206 BC — 24 AD) when the “magic mirror” was invented — this was a mirror with a pattern embedded in it, which could project an image of its pattern onto a wall. The form of projection I’m talking about is simpler than that, at least in principle, because you don’t have to embed a pattern.
Light and darkness
To project an image you need a strong light source, and a relatively dark environment around the screen. So, what light sources did they have in 14th century Hangzhou? Answer: Pyrotechnics, also known as fireworks, which appeared in China around the 9th century.
Ibn Battuta mentions that the performance was done at night. So there was no need to darken the surroundings artificially.
Indoors or outdoors?
As Maskelyne understood, concave mirror technology makes it simple (in principle) to show something or someone levitating and then make them vanish, providing you are working indoors. You can project an image onto a wall or ceiling (if the wall or ceiling is white and smooth) or you can string up a cloth screen and project onto that.
However, the text that Maskelyne cited mentioned “sky”. Śaṅkara also mentions “sky”. If the rope trick was done under the open sky, what sort of screen could they have had at the top of the rope, and how did they get the screen to stay up?
The answer to this riddle is provided by Ibn Battuta:
…we were sitting in the middle of the palace court, during the season of intense heat.
The word “court” can mean “courtyard” — a roofless area surrounded by buildings or walls. in fact, that is the original meaning of “court”, although other meanings are more common today. It seems clear that Battuta is talking about a courtyard here, because of what he says about the season.
In very hot weather, a courtyard is a sensible place to sit — the shade from the surrounding walls means that it absorbs less heat during the day than a fully open area, and the absence of a roof means that it gets cooler more quickly after sunset.
That’s why courtyards are much more prevalent in the traditional architecture of comparatively hot countries like India and China than in chilly old England where Maskelyne lived.
To the English, indoors means a place with a roof, where you can keep warm at night, and outdoors means a place where you get maximum sunshine during the day, with as few high walls as possible.
When Śaṅkara and Jahangir mention “sky”, we should consider the possibility that, like Ibn Battuta, they are talking about a courtyard performance, rather than “open air” in the English sense.
How the vanish could be done in a courtyard
A courtyard in the evening is the ideal environment for staging a climb into the heavens. Before the performance, you could stretch threads of strong light-weight material from one side of the courtyard to the other. Especially at night, they could be as difficult to see as a spider’s web. In fact, they might well have been made from the same substance as a spider’s web: silk.
The web would hold up both the climbing rope and a screen of stretched cloth. The web and the climbing rope would not have to take the weight of an actual climber, since no actual climbing is required. Which is just as well if the supposed climbers include a dog and a pig.
The mirror and its light source would be in a space hidden from the audience, but convenient for the performer to move in and out of. For instance, the performers could have had a platform to stand on when doing things the audience was meant to see, with the hidden chamber just beneath the platform.
Lighting would be arranged in such a way that very little light reached the screen until the projection started.
How the vanish could done with the help of poles
If high walls were not available, the web could suspended between tall poles. Of course the performers would need a good excuse for having the poles there. In Edward Melton’s account, they have an excellent excuse — a series of impressive pole-climbing stunts, performed in the lead-up to the rope trick itself.
What the optical system couldn’t do
The arrangement I’ve described and drawn could show a realistic, mobile image of a human climber or an animal on a screen at the top of a climbing rope, and make the climber’s image disappear. It would not show a complete climb up the cord, nor a complete climb down again.
Why then does Ibn Battuta mention two upward climbs (one by the apprentice and one by the master), plus one downward climb (by the master)?
He heard the master tell the apprentice to climb the rope. A short time later, he saw a very realistic image of the apprentice at the top of the rope. With no prior knowledge of images on screens, he naturally thought that the boy got up there by climbing. How else?
Yet he heard and recorded what Afkhar ad-Dín said: “there was no climbing or coming down…”
Edward Melton wrote that the climb was done “with indescribable swiftness”. Which makes perfect sense if image projection was the method, because the image gets there at the speed of light.
Pu Songling and misdirection
Pu Songling’s report of the rope trick is rather like Ibn Battuta’s — there is a master and a boy apprentice (who are identified as father and son), and the boy falls down in pieces before being revived. But the visual effects are simpler, because only the boy climbs the rope; and there is more dialogue.
Pu Songling mentions that the boy did not immediately start climbing when his father told him to. He behaved as if frightened of the climb. His father had to talk him into it.
This is not just an episode of dramatic conflict, it also provides what magicians call “misdirection”. When the master tells the boy to climb, this prompts the audience to look at the climbing rope, at precisely the wrong time to pick up clues to the method behind the trick. Then the argument starts, and the audience wonders how it will be resolved, and whether the boy will climb the rope at all. They stop looking at the rope, instead they are looking at the argument…
The staged conflict in Ibn Battuta’s account also provides misdirection. When the master repeatedly tells the boy to reappear and climb down again, spectators logically expect the apprentice to obey his boss. They concentrate on the top of the rope, not wanting to miss the moment when the boy will reappear and come down.
What the spectator does miss, if this misdirection works, is the upward climb by the master. Or rather, the absence of an upward climb by the master. When they see his image up aloft, they think he has climbed there.
(For the master’s downward climb, no verbal misdirection was necessary. The fall of the dismembered boy provided misdirection enough.)
If misdirection was used in this way, it means the group hallucination theory, though wide of the mark, does have a grain of truth. The performers did indeed work very skilfully on the minds of the spectators, as well as on their eyes.
The falling body parts and the happy ending
The effect of falling body parts could be produced by throwing suitably made-up objects from one of the courtyard walls.
How were they brought back to life?
Jahangir mentions a similar trick (performed as a separate item, not as part of the rope trick) where the severed limbs are first covered with a cloth. In Edward Melton’s account they went into a basket. In Pu Songling’s account, the body parts are gathered and placed in a box by the grieving father.
Covering the body parts adds to the realism of the drama — it is the sort of thing living people do for dead people, after all.
But it also means that the final part of the rope trick can be done with the same methods used by an amateur magician who puts a few pieces of coloured cloth into a top hat, and then fishes out a rabbit…
Ibn Battuta wasn’t the only one who found the magic all too real. Edward Melton thought it was the work of the Devil.
Emperor Jahangir took a more positive view, and rewarded the entertainers with a large sum of money. Nonetheless he too thought there might be something beyond “trick or juggle” in the magical performances he saw. He concluded that “there exists in some men a peculiar and essential faculty which enables them to accomplish things far beyond the ordinary scope…”
On the other hand, spectators who had read Śaṅkara’s words would know that the climber who vanished was only an image. And those familiar with then-known principles of optics could guess how the image was produced.
Which wouldn’t necessarily stop them from enjoying the spectacle.
Why isn’t it done now?
The method I’ve described is a precursor to cinema. The emergence of full-fledged cinema meant that methods like that were much less likely to impress an audience.
To sum up…
Medieval and early modern writers (Śaṅkara, Ibn Battuta, Jahangir, Edward Melton, Pu Songling) described spectacles which looked impossible, but could indeed by performed by entertainers using technologies of their time (concave mirrors, pyrotechnics and silk), using available architecture (courtyards) as the setting. The likely method involved projection of images onto an overhead screen, much to the surprise of spectators unfamiliar which such things. Shamanic mythology may have provided the storyline, but it didn’t provide the special effects.
John N. Maskelyne’s concave mirror theory was on target, although he seems never to have worked out the details. His later hoax / fable theory (though still widely accepted) is as wide of the mark as the group hallucination theory put forward by Maskelyne’s bête noire, Helena Blavatsky.
1. Sources originating from 9th to 18th century.
2. Sources from 19th century onwards.
Peter Lamont (2004 / 2005); The rise of the Indian rope trick; New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005.
John Nevil Maskelyne (1878); “Oriental Jugglery”; in The Leisure Hour. London, (Apr 20, 1878): pages 250–253.
About the graphics
- The face of Jahangir is from a 17th century portrait, attributed to Abu al-Hasan, and is in the public domain. Thanks to Wikimedia for making it available online.
- The diagram of the courtyard performance system is my own digital drawing, done with the help of MS PowerPoint.