Lettre Ulysses Award for the art of reportage

Reactions 2004

A Chinese married couple of authors was awarded the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage in Berlin’s ”Tipi“ event marquee. The couple follows in the young Mao’s footsteps by emphatically urging his party to start measuring itself by the peasants again. Wu Chuntao and her husband Chen Guidi didn’t just take four weeks but three whole years travelling through their home province of Anhui to study the wretched situation of the farmers there, and their struggles to rebel. Their “Survey“ casts light on the frequently forgotten dark side of the Chinese economic wonder, and, to their surprise, it became a huge success in China. A party secretary from the Institute of Social Sciences in Peking described their work as a ”white paper“ for the respective issues. The couple was at least allowed to travel to the competition. The magazine Lettre International aims to draw attention to reportage as an art form through the prize, now in its second year. 
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 5 October, Frankfurt

The authors of ”A Survey of Chinese peasants“ were most surprised by the fact that they were allowed to go abroad. The book, by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, is forbidden in China and they were even dragged before the courts because of its content. In Berlin, the married couple received the Ulysses Prize for Reportage Literature, endowed with € 50,000, on Saturday. The prize was issued for the second time by the magazine Lettre International – for courageous literary reportage about political and social crises.
Financial Times Deutschland, 4 October, Hamburg

At the second presentation of the Lettre Ulysses Award, the only world prize for reportage, Ryszard Kapuscinski described the essence of reportage as the struggle for justice and a better lot for those who are suffering. Of the seven reportages nominated by an international jury, four reported on Africa’s catastrophes. Just how much courage is needed for such research was shown in the text by American journalist Howard W. French (which unfortunately didn’t receive a prize). He told readers not only about the circumstances in the refugee camps for the Hutu  who fled from Rwanda to the Congo from the Tutsi’s counter genocide response – he also focussed on the difficulties of reporting itself.
Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 4 October, Zurich

In China, the book is forbidden, on Saturday in Berlin, it was awarded the first prize at the Lettre Ulysses Award, endowed with € 50 000: the world prize for reportage literature. The jury described ”A Survey of Chinese Peasants“ as an ”explosive book“ that shows how China’s industrialization is being carried out at the cost of the impoverished 900 million peasants.
Süddeutsche Zeitung, 4 October, Munich

Literary reportage has a whole host of friends, and all wanted to be present on Saturday evening when the cultural magazine Lettre presented the Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage, a prize for “literary non-fiction” endowed with € 50,000. The Tunisian author Abdelwahab Meddeb swept away fears of a tiresome ”keynote speech“ about the art of sophisticated reporting, by himself presenting a piece of free reportage, managed without a single full stop. In fact, the environment wasn’t opulent enough for all of the prize-worthy heroes of literary reportage, who still bring us news after the mainstream media’s “embedded journalists“ have packed their things and left long ago.
Süddeutsche Zeitung, 4 October, Munich

Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao received the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage at a ceremony Saturday in Berlin. The award is presented by the German magazine Lettre International, the Munich-backed Goethe Institute and the Aventis Foundation, a German charitable trust.
Wall Street Journal, 3 October, New York

But those are the problems of luxury in comparison to the farmers and their lack of basic rights, who make up two-thirds of China’s population. According to the World Bank, the difference between rich and poor in China is now greater than it is in India. Wu Chuntao and Chen Guidi decided together to investigate the life of Chinese peasants, leading to a book 460 pages long. Within months of its publication, 7 million copies were sold, including pirate copies. In Berlin, in October, the married couple received the well known Ulysses Prize for Reportage Literature. The novelist Yang Lian summarised the book’s contents: “Foreign investors’ mirage is founded on the flesh and blood of the peasants."
Stern, 50/2004, Hamburg

The Majorcan painter Miquel Barceló donated one of his African gouaches to be the poster design for the international Lettre Ulysses Award for literary reportage. It is one of several included in the most recent edition of the European cultural magazine Lettre, creator of the prize. The first prize was given this year to the Chinese Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, who expressed their hope that the book will help to better the situation of the nine million Chinese peasants whom they wrote about. With his wife, Chen showed his satisfaction at receiving recognition both from the international press and from millions of Chinese peasants: he described a scene during his trial when a bodyguard who took him to the toilet suddenly pulled a copy of his book out of his jacket and asked him for an autograph.
El Mundo, 7 October, Madrid

Chen can still recall how his status in society slumped within a single day – February 25. “In the weeks before that we did more than 100 interviews, then suddenly, the phone went silent. Later some friends in the media revealed that they had been told that our book was subject to three Nos: no publicity, no serialisation and no criticism.” That did not stop a libel suit against the authors by one of the local officials they have accused of abusing his power. The verdict was expected at the end of last month, but it was postponed after Chen and Wu travelled to Berlin to collect this year’s Lettre Ulysses Award, one of the world’s most prestigious journalistic accolades.
The Guardian, 12 November, London

The authors of a banned investigative book on the hardships of Chinese peasants have been given a $ 60,000 international literary journalism prize in Berlin. The 2004 Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage was given to the married couple Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao for their book “A Survey of Chinese Peasants” on how farmers endure widespread corruption, violence and illegal taxation by Communist officials.
The New York Times, 5 October, New York

Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao deservedly won the main Ulysses prize, endowed with 50 000 Euro, which is awarded by a multilingual international jury which has much experience in practising the ”art of reportage“.Under risky conditions, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao overcame the ”five difficulties for writing the truth“ (and a few more) as Brecht described them, a fan of ”Chinese-style” descriptions. They fulfilled these with art and skill, and also with courage and Sartrian ”engagement.“
Here in Germany, the historical genius of world traveller Alexander von Humboldt’s “Kosmos,” published by H.M. Enzenberger, has been promoted so perfectly as to make it almost an obligatory purchase for anyone wanting to be up to date. But the current “Kosmos” can be read in each edition of the German
Lettre International! Reportage has been given a public space and focus in Berlin by Lettre International, sponsored by the Aventis Foundation.
Titel-Magazin, 18 October, Karlsruhe

The untopical, the extreme, the preposterousness of this world to be reported on: these are revealed in a glance at the table of contents of Lettre International’s latest edition. The magazine recently presented the Lettre Ulysses Award 2004 for the Art of Reportage for the second time, in the name of an international jury. A prize which aims for no less than to be a Nobel prize for journalists! These works can be seen as a slow movement writing culture of resistance, perhaps as an antithesis to the journeys which hurl so many people around the world and let them return so awfully unaltered. To travel to a place, to stay, to write down as a form of respect, even to child soldiers and their gruesome deeds. To listen, as a way of acknowledging what is so easily described as the human right to dignity. The urge to object arises when reportage aims to be literature, when details of odours and grimaces are supplied without sources; or the complaint arises again that we don’t hear anything about Africa – boring and untrue. But what smallness considering the astounding reading experience that shows that the distance from their troubling experiences each writer overcame is a measure of the remoteness from the existential questions of life which we have manoeuvred ourselves into, through our discussions of claims, security and wealth.
Die Zeit, 28 October, Hamburg

In an enormous tent, fittingly behind the Chancellor’s office and beside the House of World Cultures – behind official politics and under the flag of professed cultural diversity – a world prize for reportage literature was presented again this weekend: The Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage.
Inside the tent, world leading reporters and guests united to pay homage to a genre riven with difficulties in a media world which focuses on sensation, and novelties which are quickly produced and easily presented and thus as easily forgotten. While globalised, standardised media allow us to believe we’re informed about the conditions and occurrences in the entire world, literary reportage displaces this illusion and presents us with a reality which we otherwise try to ignore. The guest of honour, Ryszard Kapuscinski, said “Reportage shows that the world is not just entertainment.”
At the ceremony, the seven nominated authors of reportage took the stage to report on places and circumstances that they had investigated and discovered over months and years with exemplary personal engagement. They brought these into the present through gripping stories. While it was clearly an award ceremony with winners and losers, the shared knowledge of the importance of all the reportages meant ultimately, it wasn’t so important who won the prize.
And it was a party, that despite the evident contrast between the glamour of a staged award ceremony and the sometimes gruesome realities of the reportages – Rwanda, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Ground Zero, China – made it clear that the genre isn’t just legitimate, but is also an urgently needed supplement to the daily stream of novelties. Too often, we are presented with catastrophes and accidents without understanding their background and circumstances. The jury member Abdourahman Waberi, a writer from France and Djibouti, said “literary reportage transmits the human depths better than the news on CNN. This depth is only possible because the writers have time for their work, time that facilitates the understanding of interconnectedness.”
Last year, the
Lettre Ulysses Award was initiated by the German edition of the cultural magazine Lettre International, with the goal of supporting and focussing on reportage not just as a journalistic genre but also as an art. So the jury’s criterion was not just an interesting story, but a profound, literary report. And reading the nominated contributions, it’s clear that the use of literary stylistic means and forms which are usually the terrain of fiction in no way hinders the reportages’ aims to transmit authenticity or factual reality. On the contrary, they are a prerequisite for capturing the complexity and the underlying interconnections. Or, in the words of the winner of the second prize, the American writer and journalist Tracy Kidder, “our task is to make reality believable.”
Literary reportage is not a new invention, but now, for the second year, it has its own prize: a significant endorsement and a way to publicise awareness of the insights of the excellent reporters who were nominated. That should at last be an inducement to translate these books into Danish! And, not least, the genre now has an institution which can gather together so many people from so many parts of the world together in a tent in Berlin.”
Information, 5 October, Copenhagen

Award sponsors German Magazine Lettre International, the Aventis Foundation and the Goethe-Institut called the book a monumental piece of literary reporting about the inequality and injustice forced upon the Chinese peasantry. The book was chosen by an international panel of 12 judges, with the award’s purpose to draw attention to the outstanding achievements of journalistic literature and to provide financial, moral and symbolic support to its authors.
South China Morning Post, 4 October, Hong Kong

It’s a very important book. And it is a book that comes from a country where the tradition of literary reportage has had some difficulties for obvious reasons, said Ms Isabel Hilton, a member of the 11-person Lettre Ulysses jury.
A Survey of Chinese Peasants is the second book in four years that has been banned by the Chinese government and yet won international accolades. Mr Chen said he was very surprised to win the literary award. He and his wife and co-author Wu Chuntao travelled to Germany to participate in the award ceremony but did not know that they had won the first prize until it was announced at the ceremony.
The Straits Times, 4 October, Singapore

Maybe one day this award will be as prestigious as the Pulitzer, a Pulitzer of international reach. So far, it’s started out on the right foot with an eager defence of reportage as art and artistry, and ambitious journalism that stands apart from the rush and immediacy of electronic media and the Internet. A jury of first rank gave the Lettre Ulysses Awards this weekend in Berlin, for the second year, organized by the Lettre magazine, the Goethe institute and the Aventis Foundation.
La Vanguardia, 7 October, Barcelona

Last Saturday, the Lettre Ulysses Award for the Art of Reportage 2004 was awarded to a married Chinese couple in Berlin. The pair wrote a book that is a bestseller in China, but was swiftly forbidden: now it is only available as a pirate copy on the black market. Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao won the first prize, of € 50,000 for their work “Survey of Chinese Peasants“ (People’s Literature Publication Company). The jury explained its choice by saying “the explosive text is the first thorough investigation into the economic, social and political conditions of the Chinese peasants, their living conditions, which are almost unknown in the West. It describes the problems of despotism, of arbitrariness, of corruption, of violence which sometimes extends to murder, and lawlessness, along with unjust taxation, from which a large part of the rural population suffers. The book also shows how China’s enforced industrialisation is built largely upon the impoverishment of the Chinese peasantry.”
This reportage prize was given for the second time, and there is a web site giving readers access to the biographies of the selected journalists and writers, their works, and also the history and philosophy of the prize which was established in 2003 by the cultural magazine
Lettre International. The award is based on cooperation with the Aventis Foundation, with the Goethe-Institut as a project partner. ”This literary reportage prize (the only literary prize awarded in Berlin) aims to draw international attention to the outstanding achievements of reportage literature world wide, and to provide financial, moral and symbolic support to its authors,“ they say.
Público, 9 October, Lisbon

Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao both come from peasant families. For three years they worked on the book that was a bestseller in China until it was banded by the authorities. Now the book is only available as a pirate version, and legal proceedings are underway against the authors.
"We hope that the authorities are influenced by the international attention in this case. The fact that we were allowed to travel here to the prize ceremony allows us to hope that we could be successful in our trial", the Chinese authors commented in Berlin during their reception of the prize.
Dagens Nyheter, 5 October, Stockholm

Wu Chuntao and Chen Guidi’s book is not critical of the government in a conventional way, and the authors are not counted among the opposition. As before, the pair continues to emphasise that they only wanted to describe existing problems to the government, and that ”A Survey of Chinese Peasants” is not a polemic book aimed at the party leaders, who had initially welcomed the book. Now they fear that the censorship of their book will be followed by political reprisals.
Liberala Nyhedsbyrån, 4 October, Stockholm

As Breytenbach said, consciousness must be created in order to do something – this genuinely humanistic aspect of writing about reality, about ”forgotten continents“, is certainly one of the most impressive achievements of the prize.
Die Tageszeitung, 9 October, Berlin

The award was inaugurated in 2003 and first won by Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who said in September that she was poisoned by Russian secret services on her way to report on the Beslan school siege, in which 330 died.
Chen and Wu have also been targeted as a result of their book, which reports official abuses of rural communities—particularly in their home province Anhui—in unprecedented and devastating detail.
Radio Free Asia, 11 October, Washington, D.C.

In their presentations, the creators of the award and organisers from Lettre International Frank Berberich and Esther Gallodoro, emphasised the necessity of restoring the dignity of literary reportage which brings us the “passion of the real” and which “enriches our comprehension of the world”.
Esprit, November 2004, Paris

Consistent with the political flavour were the second Lettre Ulysses Awards for the Art of Reportage, aimed at drawing international attention to outstanding achievements of reportage literature. This time around the 11-member international jury caused a major surprise by awarding the 50,000 euro prize to the Chinese couple Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao for their controversial survey of Chinese Peasants.
Globalinfo.org, 12 October, New York

Has Chinese journalism found its own way of coming of age? Last year, two journalists—a married couple, Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao—completed a very long piece of reportage, called rather prosaically "A Survey of Chinese Peasants". It was published, but met immediate official disapproval from the Communist authorities. Yet, this being a communist market society, the market also had its say, and bootleg copies were sold in their hundreds of thousands.
Why? Because it was a revelation - first of all to the two journalists, who themselves had come from the peasantry they surveyed. They were surprised, shocked and frightened by what they saw and heard in two years of travel through rural China. These realities were unwelcome - hence the muffling of the reportage. But it wasn't suppressed; the black market created by it was allowed to thrive; the writers are at liberty; and last month, they were allowed to travel to Berlin to collect the
Ulysses Prize for narrative journalism, given by the journal Lettre International in Berlin.
It seems there is both life, and thus hope, in the emerging giant that will be Chinese journalism.
Financial Times Weekend Magazine, 20 November, London

The authors of a banned book that accuses Chinese communist officials of mistreating peasants have been awarded a EUR 50,000 journalism prize by a Germany-based group. 
Khaleej Times, 4 October, Dubai

The Tunisian poet Abdelwahab Meddeb recited an elegy on the misery of emigration. The melody of his text, emphasised with gesture as though he was conducting the waves of the strait, set a high tone. The doyen of literary reportage and official distributor of the trophy and kisses Ryszard Kapuscinski called Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao true “warriors of humanity.” The pair received the first prize and EUR 50,000 for their mammoth work about the shocking living conditions of Chinese peasants.
Berliner Zeitung, 4 October, Berlin

go to top of the page

"I think this documentary prose should really break fixed boundaries."Svetlana Alexievitch (jury member 2003, 2004 & 2005)