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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2193

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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 stalls to display their work. Min’s stall contains the fewest pieces, but Kim looks at them for a long time. The only other potter who receives so much attention is Kang. After viewing all the work, the emissary sets out for another town. Before he leaves, he says that he will return in a few months to make his final decisions.

Now that everyone knows about Kang’s novel pottery technique, they all set out to imitate it. Tree-ear is thrilled when Min follows the trend. Min outdoes himself molding and decorating the pots. However, there is only time for one set of pots to be fired before Kim’s return, and they all end up covered by rusty red splotches—an occasional, unavoidable result of the firing process. Furious, Min smashes all of the pots. When Kim returns, the potter claims that he has not made anything new.

Tree-ear is furious at his master’s pride, but Kim seems to understand. He says that he admires Min’s work and would be willing to review more if Min ever brings some pieces to Songdo, the royal city. Min is too old to make such a journey, so Tree-ear offers to make it for him. Min would probably refuse this offer out of pride, but his wife convinces him to accept. She also asks Tree-ear to begin calling her Ajima, a title reserved for respected elderly relatives. Tree-ear is touched, and his affection for her grows.

As Min works to prepare more pottery, Tree-ear grows more and more impatient to help with the work. He has secretly taught himself to mold clay into shapes, but he desperately wants to try working with a wheel. Eventually he works up the courage to ask Min if he will teach him to make pots, and Min says no. The pottery trade is handed down father to son, and Tree-ear is not Min’s son.

The knowledge that he will never learn to be a potter is hard for Tree-ear to accept, and his work loses some of its interest for him. Still, he feels loyal to Min’s excellent craft, to Ajima, and to his own promise to carry Min’s work to the royal emissary in Songdo. Furthermore, he realizes that he can still work in secret developing his ability to craft molded objects from clay.

Over a period of months, Min makes several of the most beautiful pieces he has ever created. Eventually he chooses two of them for Tree-ear to carry to Songdo. Tree-ear is ready for the journey but worried about how Crane-man will fare in his absence. Ajima helps him with this problem by giving Crane-man work so that he will have enough to eat while Tree-ear is gone. Crane-man tries to refuse the job out of pride, but Tree-ear convinces him to take it.

Tree-ear makes the journey to Songdo alone, with Min’s vases in an elaborate grass basket on his back. At first he is afraid to be traveling alone, but he soon grows used to the exercise and solitude. He spends most nights in villages, staying with families or paying for beds in inns. Once in a while, he sleeps alone in the woods. On the journey, he is often frightened—but he is never in serious danger until he reaches the city of Puyo.

In Puyo, Tree-ear meets two thieves. The men see the basket on his back and think that it must be full of rice. They attack him and take the basket away. When they open it and see the pottery inside, they are disappointed. The vases are no use to them; the work is so expensive that the thieves cannot sell them without arousing suspicion. They smash the work out of spite.

Tree-ear cannot bear the idea of returning to Ch’ulp’o with the news that he failed to transport Min’s vases to Songdo. He examines the shards and finds a large one that shows Min’s skill. Knowing full well that he may be refused an audience with Kim, he takes the shard with him and continues his journey. He walks quickly, refusing to rest, desperate to get to his goal.

When he reaches Songdo, Tree-ear finds a castle guard and announces that he needs to speak with Kim. The guard calls Kim’s assistant, who demands to see the vase Tree-ear has brought. Pretending to feel confident, Tree-ear says that he will not discuss the pottery’s whereabouts with anyone but Kim himself. Reluctantly, the assistant takes Tree-ear to Kim’s office. There Tree-ear explains what happened and shows Kim the single shard he has brought. The assistant shouts at Tree-ear for wasting an important man’s time, but Kim simply examines the shard of pottery and writes out a royal commission for Min. His assistant protests, but Kim says that Min’s work—both the work he saw in Ch’ulp’o and the work he can see in the shard—is of the finest quality. He asks Tree-ear how many pieces Min can produce every year. Tree-ear is astonished to be asked such an important question, but he thinks it over and says ten. “My master works slowly,” he explains. The emissary seems to respect this answer. He thanks Tree-ear for coming and arranges his passage home on a boat.

When Tree-ear returns to Ch’ulp’o, he goes straight to Min with the good news. When Min hears what has happened, he merely sits down solemnly. Tree-ear is shocked. Even a man like Min, who is normally subdued, should have some reaction to the news that his life’s goal is fulfilled. But Min says nothing about the commission. Instead he tells Tree-ear that, in his absence, Crane-man was killed in an accident. Tree-ear is overcome by grief. He feels guilty and stupid for leaving Crane-man behind. That night he sleeps in Min’s house, but in the morning he sneaks off to cry by himself. When he is finished, he does not know what to do except go to work.

Min orders Tree-ear to go into the woods and get some large logs. For a moment, Tree-ear does not respond. Normally he collects wood to fuel the kiln, and he knows that large logs cannot possibly fit. Seeing his hesitation, Min reminds him that he has been awarded a royal commission:

Do you not realize how much work it will be?...How are you to help me if you do not have a wheel of your own?

When the meaning of these words sinks in, Tree-ear realizes that the old potter is saying that he has changed his mind; he will take Tree-ear as an apprentice after all. Before Tree-ear leaves to get the logs, Ajima takes him aside and says that, from now on, he will live with them and sleep in her son’s old room. She asks him if he is willing to take a new name, Hyung-pil, the name she would have given a second son if she had ever had one. Tree-ear agrees and heads for the woods, looking for logs and dreaming of the vase he will make someday when he is a master potter himself.

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