During the Ming dynasty in the 17th century, China underwent many social and cultural changes due to the sudden influx of silver from South America. Social mobility consequently led to an increase in population and the expansion of the educated class. There was a developmental shift in philosophy putting emphasis on authenticity and individuality. Everyone had the potential to become “sage”. This transition to authentic emotions and what it meant to be a moral person also led to a transition of gardens: they were not any longer solely seen as productive spaces but also as aesthetic spaces.
The two crucial elements in a traditional Chinese garden during that time were rocks and water. They were seen as complementary elements in which rocks represented the yang and water the yin. When looking at a garden as a body rocks would serve as the bones and water as arteries. Big, massive piles of rocks were meant to imitate real mountains. The scale of these constructions can still be observed in early paintings. The “mighty peaks” as they were called imposed themselves on the landscape and made everything in comparison seem small and meaningless.
There are a transition in garden style shifting from an axial and geometric to a more natural layout. Like many other garden designers, Ji Cheng’s new philosophy was to use the natural high and lows of an area. His goal was not to impose a certain design on the landscape but to work with it, leading to a more naturalistic, less axial style. “Miniaturized rockery”, suggested a full-scale mountain beyond the limit of the gardens, which was certainly a more subtle human intervention of nature than imposing a massive pile of earth and rocks on a landscape.