The Art of Dunhuang Reimagined: Suh Yong’s Modernization of Tradition


Suh Yong, born in 1962, is a Japanese artist who spent years studying Buddhist art in the Mogao Caves located in Dunhuang. Coming from a traditional background in Oriental Painting, Suh Yong creates his style infusing the conventional aspects of representation similar to paintings found in the Mogao Caves with more modern techniques and mediums. The influence of the Dunhuang-styled art on Suh Yong is tremendous. 

Dunhuang, located on the Silk Road, was a melting pot for many different styles and influences. Dunhuang became the gateway that connected China to the Western civilizations. Within the Mogao Caves located in Dunhuang, there is an assortment of different kinds of mediums for art. These include architectural structures, wall murals, paintings, manuscripts, and sculptures. Dunhuang also was a place that shows the connection between Korea and China. Found within the Mogao Caves is a manuscript written by Hyecho, the pioneering monk who recounted his travels from Silla Korea to India. His main goal was to understand and learn about Buddhism. With him, he brought Korean influences to Dunhuang, and Suh Yong is a modern-day pioneer bringing modern artistic styles to the art of Dunhuang. Traditional Dunhuang style paintings mostly depict many traditional Buddhist images. This includes iconic images, Buddhist narratives, Chinese mythological figures, and legends related to the history of Buddha. All these kinds of imagery are also found within Suh Yong’s paintings. 

Suh Yong started his career imitating many of the traditional Buddhist wall murals found within the Mogao Caves. His earlier work focuses more on capturing the nature of the Dunhuang style and adding accents of modern art styles. In his earlier work, he focused on traditional Buddhist subjects, and in this exhibit, his early kind of work is represented by the two paintings titled “Language of Heaven.” These paintings depict the traditional subject of the Buddhist Pure Lands and the Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of wisdom. In both of these paintings, Suh Yong adds the aspect of gold foiling to help emulate the holiness of the images and subject matters. 

Suh Yong describes his artistic process when approaching the traditional styled Dunhuang paintings. He states that he focused on two words when first imitating the Dunhuang wall murals, these two words being “Heavenly Language.” He further explains that everything he draws conveys the language of God. However, he states that the language of God does not have to have parameters for a depiction that it should also represent how the artist interprets this language of God. Suh Yong uses symbols, color, and modern techniques to define the language of God. He also is careful to hold true and honor the artists of Dunhuang by adding more traditional elements to his painting. We can see this kind of transformation happen within the painting “Origin of Karma” and the final artwork labeled “Language of Heaven.” The use of color and symbols helps to highlight the language of God. Suh Yong’s most recent exhibition, “The Voices of Heaven to The Bliss of Oasis,” his relief titled “Heavenly Language,” captures the mix of traditional subjects with Suh Yongs own modern interpretations. The exhibition “The Art of Dunhuang Reimagined: Suh Yong’s Modernization of Tradition” showcases Suh Yong’s transformation and highlights his modern artistic style that developed over the years. This exhibition shows the change from imitation with contemporary elements to modern pieces with traditional elements. This exhibition highlights and makes Suh Yongs voice vocal in encapsulating Dunhuang art and telling his own stories of the word of God.

Creator: Suh Yong

Title: Language of Heaven

Date: 2002

Work Type: Painting

Material: loess, pigment, mixed media and gold foil on hemp

Measurements: 244 x 178 cm. (96 x 70 1/16 in.)

Repository: Christie’s Auction


Suh Yong’s multimedia painting depicts Buddhist Heaven. The image is split into three tiers, each tier having its own scene. There is a sense of journey upwards; these three tiers emphasize that. Starting at the bottom and moving the eye upward, the first tier depicts a lotus pond with platforms and bridges on top. The central platform has musicians and dancers performing. Holy figures with halos sit on the platforms on the left and right and seem to be engaging with the musicians on the lower bridges next to them. The next tier depicts the Buddha central with Bodhisattvas to the left and right of him. This is the main focal point of the whole painting. These holy figures sit on a platform in front of an architectural structure that mimics a pavilion-type building. Inside this building and below the Buddha are religious figures with halos. They all have their eyes closed along with the Buddha and Bodhisattvas. They look like they are caught in the middle of praying. The final tier at the top of the painting depicts a gallery-type structure with other figures looking down at the Buddha praying.


Suh Yong intentionally split the painting into different sections to create a sense of journey. This journey could also reflect on the trip to Heaven and the rebirth in Heaven since, in Buddhist ideology, Heaven is only a temporary state. Placing the Buddha in the middle plane centrally helps to highlight the Buddha’s holy status and superiority over every other figure in the painting. The colors used in this multimedia painting also help to highlight the divine nature of this painting. The painting has a palette of teal, green, tans, browns, reds, and gold. The use of the gold color helps create a sense of holiness, as it outlines the halos and figures of the religious people. This painting is very traditional in understanding the subject matter and layout of the painting, but Suh Yong adds more modern elements. The border of this painting has a pattern of florals and a gold foil square on each corner. This use of iconography is a modern touch. The floral designs could depict a lotus flower indicating the purity of the scene within its border. The gold squares add light to the painting and movement as well. In Buddhism, there is a connection between light and morality, purity and goodness. The use of the gold foil squares helps indicate the scene within the painting as Heaven by creating a sense of purity and good around the internal images.

Creator: Suh Yong

Title: Language of Heaven

Date: 2003

Work Type: Painting

Material: mixed media on board

Measurements: 150 x 175 cm. (59 x 68 1/2 in.)


Suh Yong’s mixed media painting depicts a traditional Buddhist Iconic image of the Bodhisattva of wisdom, the Manjusri. The colors used include gold, blue, rust, orange, and green. The Manjusri is off-centered and identified by the lion he rides. The Bodhisattva is seated in the lotus position on top of the lion. The Manjusri is more prominent in scale than the other figures and is the main focal point of the painting. Many other holy figures surround the Manjusri and are identifiable by their halos. However, the most significant and most detailed halo belongs to the Manjusri. There are also other figures depicted without halos that surround the Manjusri. All the figures have peaceful facial expressions, including the Manjusri. The lion has its mouth open showcasing its teeth. In the foreground, there are clouds that figures stand on in the foreground and clouds in the background that surround an architectural structure. There is a floral pattern on the border that incorporates the color green into the painting. 


Suh Yong imitated the traditional depiction of the Manjusri. The figural subjects surrounding the Manjusri depict holy figures and people in traditional Chinese dress. This helps to illuminate the Manjusri exalted status and showcases how many people prayed to the Bodhisattva for wisdom. The Bodhisattva sitting on the lion in a lotus position indicates how the BBodhisattva could tame the traditionally wild animal. This represents how the Manjusri can tame the mind of people with wisdom. Manjusri in Sanskrit means “Gentle Glory,” and this sense of gentleness is expressed in the people’s facial expressions surrounding the Bodhisattva. It is also represented in the gentle flowing clouds, which can also highlight the mystical feeling felt within the painting. The architectural structure in the top quadrant could represent the Buddhist Pure Land, further illuminating the religious significance and journey to Heaven. Suh Yong adds modern elements to help further represent the religious motifs. These modern elements include the use of gold within the painting. The gold creates a sense of light in the image. The color gold helps to highlight the importance of the artwork and the superiority of the subject matter. It emphasizes the importance of the Manjusri in Buddhist teachings. Flowering the borders also help to further the sense of purity and religious significance within its borders. This is an example of Suh Yong using a traditional subject matter with hints of modern and abstract details. 

Creator: Suh Yong

Title: Origin of Karma

Date: 2005

Work Type: Painting

Material: loess,hemp, pigment

Measurements: 127x 95.5 cm

Repository: N/A


Suh Yong’s painting depicts the Buddhist Pure Land or Heaven. This painting inhabits many of the traditional characteristics of the Buddhist Pure Land. At the bottom of the image, there is a platform over the lotus pond. Moving upward in the center, a Buddha is represented by the halo and seated in the lotus position. Surrounding the Buddha are other religious figures identified by the halos. At the top, there is an architectural structure and gallery above. The only two colors used in this painting are red and yellow. The image lacks a lot of details and is very simplistic.


Suh Yong’s simplistic painting holds a lot of meaning. However, it is hard to make out a lot of the details of this painting because of the use of color and the technique of just outlining the depiction. The red background overwhelms the viewer. Using only two colors does not allow for any shading or many details of the actual image being depicted. This painting looks more abstract and moves away from the traditional Dunhuang style. The use of red could be symbolic. Red in Buddhism indicates power and love. Just outlining the figures and using two colors is a modern take on the traditional subject type. The lack of detail and the red almost act as a haze surrounding the figure and create a sense of mysticism. 

Creator: Suh Yong

Title: Language of Heaven

Date: N/A

Work Type: Painting

Material: mixed media on hemp cloth

Measurements: 31.5☓23.6in

Repository: Chinese Auction


Suh Yong’s multimedia painting depicts a flowering object overwhelming the background of a traditional Buddhist subject. The scene illustrates a Buddha on the right side of the image and other figures in a prayer gesture surrounding the Buddha. The Buddha is identifiable from the top knot and third eye. The Buddha is seated in the lotus position. The Buddha is much bigger than any other figure. There are only two colors in the background of the painting, including red and blue. There is very little detail, and the figures and structural elements are just outlined. The main focal point of this painting is the flower in the foreground. There are two flowers depicted, one white and one greenish-blue. The numerous large petals indicate that this flower could represent a lotus flower. 


This piece of Suh Yong art symbolizes his kind of new creation. Here, a central symbol depicts a flowering object that could be a lotus flower. The flower almost looks like a framed picture hanging on a wall. The lotus flower represents the purity of body and soul. Having the lotus flower overwhelms the background of Buddhist imagery highlights the sense of purity found within the painting. The distribution of the experience with the lotus flower could also underline the purity found within the Buddhist imagery. In the background, the main focal point is a buddha depicted in the right corner. The placement of the Buddha is unique since the Buddha is usually depicted centrally. The layout is similar to that of a Buddhist scroll painting, and the eye moves from the left side of the image to the right side. The Buddha does not face the viewer but the figures and the lotus flower. The use of the lotus flower symbol is an abstract technique used by Suh Yong to emphasize the Buddhist teachings and its importance of purity and longevity. He also highlights the connection between these characteristics to the Buddha itself. 

: Suh Yong

Title: Heavenly Language

Date: 2021

Work Type: Engraving on the earthen wall, relief 

Measurements: (97x47cm)

Repository: Osquare Gallery


Suh Yong’s engraving is broken up into abstract shapes. The first engraving in the curved portion depicts flowering and structural elements. The engraving’s lower, more circular part shows a figure with a halo surrounded by a structural component. The following engraving in the largest portion depicts a group of figures gathered together. In the thinner parts, there are flowering and linear elements. The third engraving depicts a group of religious figures in front of a structure with flowering objects hanging the structure. The religious figures are identifiable by their halos. In the final engraving, the Buddha is depicted in the lotus position. The top knot, third eye, and long ear lobes are visually represented. Above the Buddha, a portion of the engraving depicts another architectural element with lotus flowers surrounding the structure. Only two colors are represented in these engravings, including yellow and blue. The etching technique is also used in these engravings, which lacks shading. The engravings are set on a geometrical black background.


Suh Yong intentionally split the engraving apart into geometrical shapes. The cutouts create a sense of journey and force your eyes to move across each engraving. This artwork represents Suh Yong art’s most abstract and modern style. The use of geometrical shapes and patterns can be found in the engravings’ shapes and the background pattern. The darkness of the background helps to highlight the light and significance of the etching and the story being told within the engravings. The subject matter of these engraving could be a story from the Buddha’s life since the Buddha is the main focal point of the engravings. The figure of the Buddha is the only figure that is not cut up or missing highlighting the importance of the figure. The cutting up of the engraving indicates a sense of unknowing and forces the viewer to imagine what fills the gaps between the engravings. This allows the viewer to interpret the engravings on their own and add their interpretations of the language of god into the engravings themselves. This very abstract and unique technique by Suh Yong invites the viewer to use their interpretations and imagination in viewing his artwork. 



  • Yong, Suh. “Heavenly Language.” O Square, 2021, O Square, O Square,서용개인전-exhibition?pgid=kn5d3x9g-a1b5c806-501b-44d4-a12d-673 da6acd4cd. Accessed 2021. 
  • Yong, Suh. “Language of Heaven.” Christies, 2010, Christie Auction, Christie Auction House, Accessed 2021. 
  • Yong, Suh. “Language of Heaven .” Christie’s Auction, 2010, Christies Auction, Christies Auction, Accessed 2021. 
  • Yong, Suh. “Language of Heaven.” Mutual Art, n.d., Chinese Auction, Chinese Auction, Accessed 2021. 
  • Yong, Suh. Origin of Karma. 2005. 


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Author: Maggie Linehan

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