THE INDIANA COMPANION TO TRADITIONAL CHINESE LITERATURE, William H. Nienhauser Jr., editor and compiler; Charles Hartman, Y. W. Ma and Stephen H. West, associate editors (Indiana University: $75). One of the commonly held assumptions said to be frequently upset by the Guinness “Book of World Records” is that “Smith” or something like it must be the world’s most common family name. The fact that there are more than 100 million persons named “Chang"--and more Changs than the entire population of all but seven of the world’s nations--means that competition from the Smiths is not even close. Chinese statistics have a knack for jolting the unsuspecting. In literature, moreover, the Chinese tradition is not only the world’s longest but also, some would claim, its richest. The new Indiana Companion could go far to nail down that claim.

This volume deals with the literature called “traditional"--that is, from archaic times all the way to 1911. Its entries are dense without being telegraphic and are augmented by longer survey essays on topics such as Rhetoric, Drama, Taoist Literature and Women’s Literature. They justify the book’s claim to be a companion rather than merely a reference book; the manner of presentation invites longer, more slowly savored spates of reading. The tools for deeper inquiry into each topic as well as the location of available translations are provided in excellent notes. Specialists will value the provision of Chinese and Japanese sources.

Now and then, it is said that the West’s study of Asia’s classical literatures during the 19th and 20th centuries has constituted a real but unheralded “second renaissance” in the West’s own history. That idea is a pleasant consolation for the special agonies of our times. To date, however, it remains merely the groundwork for a renaissance; even the availability of excellent translations and studies does not yet mean that Western readers and writers can be said to really know and use Asia’s literatures. A Kurosawa can build Western classics such as “Macbeth” or “King Lear” into his Japanese films, and viewers on both sides of the Pacific can readily recognize what he has done. It does not, however, work the other way around--largely because we still scarcely know Asia’s humanistic classics. With their readable, reliable Indiana Companion, William H. Nienhauser and 200 others have now, though, given us much more easy access to the best of China.