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...

(The entire section is 960 words.)