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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 960


Tree-ear is the twelve-year-old main character of A Single Shard. He is an orphan who lives under a bridge with his friend and surrogate father, Crane-man. Crane-man teaches Tree-ear to act honorably and be a good person. His love and support give Tree-ear the basis he needs to become more than just a street kid. Near the beginning of the story, Tree-ear begins to hope for such a future, and he manages to secure himself a job with Min, a pottery master. In this role, Tree-ear becomes the main provider for himself and for his protector. Throughout the story, he shows personal grit, helping the potter Min even after he refuses to train Tree-ear as a potter, and carrying a shard of Min’s work to the royal emissary even after robbers destroy the vases.

Tree-ear is named for a mushroom that grows on rotting logs “without benefit of parent seed”—a good name for an orphan character who lives on what others leave behind. At the end of the story, however, Ajima offers Tree-ear a new name, Hyung-pil. Tree-ear knows that their first son was named Hyung-gu, and that it is custom to give siblings names that share a syllable. In other words, Ajima’s offer of a new name is her subtle way of offering to adopt Tree-ear as a second son. Tree-ear’s acceptance of his new name signals that he is leaving behind his life as a homeless scavenger and taking up a valued position within a family and a community.


Crane-man gets his name because of a physical disability, a shriveled foot, that forces him to stand on one foot like a crane. Crane-man’s family died many years ago, and his disability prevented him from taking care of himself in their absence. He would have moved into the local monastery, but a fox—an animal that was greatly feared in Korea at the time of the story—appeared on the path to the monastery and scared him away.

An honorable character who refuses to steal or accept gifts of pity, Crane-man contents himself with the food he can gather from garbage piles and from the forest. He is a father figure for Tree-ear, teaching the boy to live honestly even as a street urchin. He dies in an accident while Tree-ear is on a journey to the capital city for the potter, Min.


A master potter, Min is the greatest craftsman in Ch’ulp’o. He is a perfectionist who works slowly and refuses to sell anything but the best products. He is also a gruff, difficult character who accepts Tree-ear as a helper but never gives the boy any encouragement. He once had a son, but the boy died. At the end of the story, he adopts Tree-ear as a second son and begins teaching him the pottery trade.


Ajima, Min’s wife, is a staunch ally of Tree-ear’s throughout the story. She gives him food and clothes, and she clearly appreciates the chores he does to thank her. Halfway through the story, she asks Tree-ear to call her Ajima, a Korean word for a respected elderly relative. Although it is never said directly, the reader is led to believe that she is a major force in convincing Min to adopt Tree-ear and accept him as an apprentice.


Kang, another potter in Ch’ulp’o, does sloppy work but manages to originate an inlay technique that allows him to create stark images on his pottery. He gains some respect and a limited one-year royal commission for this development. However, both Tree-ear and Min regard Kang’s work as inferior.


Kim, the royal emissary, is responsible for commissioning pottery for the king. He can assign potters commissions for the work they will produce, either for limited periods or for the rest of their lives. He is a true pottery expert who sees the flaws in Kang’s work and admires the craftsmanship of Min’s creations. When Min’s work is ruined by an uncontrollable problem with the oxidation of the glaze, Kim offers him a second chance. Later, when Tree-ear appears at the capital city with only a shard of the vase Min made, Kim assigns the master potter a lifelong commission on its basis.


Hyung-gu, Min and Ajima’s dead son, makes no appearance in the story, but the boy affects the events nonetheless. The author suggests that Min’s grumpiness and perfectionism are partly caused by grief at the loss of his son. She also implies that Ajima’s effusive welcome of Tree-ear into her life is partly motivated by her wish for a new son.

Unnamed characters

Unnamed characters of note include the impatient farmer Tree-ear meets at the beginning of the story and the two robbers he meets near the end.

The impatient farmer is losing rice from a hole in a poorly made grass basket on his back. Tree-ear knows that he should not steal, so he tells the farmer about the hole—but he waits a little while before he says anything. Then, as Tree-ear has hoped, the farmer rewards him for his help by giving him the rice that has fallen to the ground. This episode establishes Tree-ear’s basically honest character as well as his ingenuity.

The two robbers at the end of the novel smash Min’s vases out of spite because they were hoping Tree-ear was carrying rice instead. These characters serve the plot function of pushing Tree-ear to a fateful decision—persevering in spite of extreme obstacles. At the same time, they are an image of the type of people Crane-man and Tree-ear could have become had they not chosen a more honorable path.

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