A Single Shard is the story of a twelve-year-old boy growing up in Ch’ulp’o, a twelfth-century Korean town. An orphan, he is called Tree-ear after a kind of mushroom that grows “without benefit of parent seed.” He and his protector, Crane-man, live under a bridge and eat scraps of food from garbage heaps. Crane-man has taught Tree-ear that they must live honorably by scavenging and not give in to the temptation to steal.
The town of Ch’ulp’o is famous for its pottery. The clay in the region allows potters to glaze their pots a beautiful, highly prized gray-green color called celadon. In his free time, Tree-ear likes to hide in the bushes and watch Min, an old master potter, make pots grow on his pottery wheel. Min is a perfectionist who typically forms and discards far more pots than he keeps. As a result, he is not only the best but also one of the slowest potters in the village.
One day Tree-ear finds the potter away from home. Tree-ear sneaks into the yard to look more closely at several of Min’s creations. The delicate pieces—a duck formed to pour water from its bill, a large jug shaped like a melon, and a plain rectangular box that hides several other boxes inside it—amaze him. When Tree-ear drops and breaks a piece of the box, he offers to pay for the broken pottery with nine days of work.
Tree-ear secretly hopes that Min will teach him to become a potter, but Min makes him cut firewood to stoke the village kiln instead. This is a difficult job, blistering Tree-ear’s hands and straining his muscles. At the end of each day, Tree-ear is exhausted. Lucky for him, he has Crane-man to treat his blisters, tell him stories, and provide him with small meals of scavenged food at the end of each day.
After his nine days of work are finished, Tree-ear returns to Min and offers to work for him permanently, even though Min refuses to pay any money for the work. He hopes that Min will teach him to make pots, but Min sends Tree-ear to the clay pits outside town to cut clay and bring it home. Tree-ear finds the job difficult. However, the new job has a positive side. Min’s kindly wife provides him a midday meal of rice, fish, and cabbage—far better food than Tree-ear normally earns scavenging.
At first, Tree-ear is thrilled with himself for earning his lunch, but soon he grows worried. Crane-man has always shared everything with him, and now Tree-ear gets a meal every midday which he cannot carry home. He soon solves this problem by bringing his own bowl for Min’s wife to fill. He eats half of the food and hides the other half to take home to Crane-man in the evening. Tree-ear is used to eating very little, and it fills him with satisfaction to help the old beggar eat so well.
After Tree-ear collects enough clay, he learns to drain it at a nearby stream, thus making purified clay and glazes. Rather than explain how to do each job, Min barks orders and leaves Tree-ear to figure out how to fulfill them. Tree-ear works by experimentation and by watching other potters. Min responds to mistakes with criticism, but he never rewards good work with praise.
By eavesdropping on other potters, Tree-ear learns that Min is struggling to earn a living because his perfectionism makes him so slow. What he needs is a royal commission, a contract to produce pottery for the king’s household. This position is well-paid and extremely honorable. It is the dream of many potters, but Min pursues it with more drive than anyone else in town.
From long habit as a scavenger, Tree-ear is observant. He notices before anyone else that a certain potter, Kang, has developed a new technique to make beautiful inlaid patterns on his pots. It is a great innovation, but Kang is a poor potter whose work is sloppy. Tree-ear observes the man working in secret and realizes that this new technique will draw attention. He wants to tell Min about it, but he does not know if it is right to give his master another man’s secrets. He asks Crane-man, who advises against telling Min, at least until Kang makes his innovation public.
Min’s wife continues to give Tree-ear his lunch every day, and she soon realizes that he is hiding half of his food to take home. Every afternoon she surreptitiously refills his bowl so that he will have a full meal to take with him. This means that Tree-ear gets to eat half of a meal with Crane-man every night, in addition to the half meal he eats at midday. He realizes that Min’s wife would probably give him a whole extra meal every day if he ate all of his food at midday, but he is too proud to find out.
In addition to working hard for Min, Tree-ear does many small tasks for Min’s wife, hoping that this is adequate thanks for the extra food she gives him. He rarely speaks to her, but the two of them develop an affection for each other. When winter arrives, she gives him a beautiful warm jacket and pair of pants that she originally made for her son, who died when he was Tree-ear’s size. Tree-ear is thankful, but he cannot bear wearing such wonderful clothes when Crane-man has none. He gives Crane-man the jacket and keeps the pants for himself.
Word arrives in town that an emissary of the king is going to visit Ch’ulp’o to award royal commissions to the best of the potters. Everyone in town begins working to ready their best pieces. When the emissary, Kim, arrives, everyone sets up...
(The entire section is 2193 words.)