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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1054

Honor and Hard Work

In A Single Shard, Tree-ear and Crane-man live according to a code of integrity, even though they live on the streets:

Foraging in the woods and rubbish heaps, gathering fallen grain-heads in the autumn—these were honorable ways to garner a meal, requiring time and work. But stealing and begging, Crane-man said, made a man no better than a dog.

Throughout the story, Tree-ear follows this code of ethics. When he breaks a piece of Min’s pottery, he works to pay for it. Whenever Ajima gives him food or clothing, he shares those gifts with Crane-man. When he realizes that Kang is hiding a new, remarkable pottery technique, he keeps the knowledge to himself until Kang reveals it.

Through Tree-ear’s story, author Linda Sue Park suggests that in order to behave with integrity, a person must behave unselfishly. Tree-ear works hard to help Min, Ajima, and Crane-man even when he does not expect to benefit. Even when faced with the hard news that he will never realize his dream to be a potter, Tree-ear sticks by his promise to help Min fulfill his goal of securing a royal commission for pottery.

Tree-ear does not ask for or expect to benefit from his integrity, but most of the good things that happen to him in the story are results of his honorable behavior. His hard work for Min gains him the ability to eat better and to provide food for his friend. His respectful behavior toward Ajima no doubt contributes to her desire to support him and give him extra food and clothing. He is also constantly loyal to Min. This loyalty is presumably part of the reason for Min’s decision to adopt Tree-ear and train him to be a potter at the end of the story.

Respect and Empathy

Closely connected to the theme of hard work is the theme of respect. Tree-ear, as a young boy, is consistently polite and respectful to all of the adults in his life. His constant politeness, even in disappointment, may seem strange to some young readers today, but it was an important element of his twelfth-century Korean culture. It is worth noting that all of the characters—not only children—are bound by rigid social rules demanding that they show respect for those who have different ranks and roles than they do.

Through her story, Linda Sue Park suggests that empathy is of paramount importance within such a rigid social structure. Social rules prevent the characters in A Single Shard from saying what they want and need, so the people who care about them must imagine how they are feeling and act accordingly. Just before Tree-ear leaves for Songdo, he begins to worry that Crane-man may not have enough to eat in his absence. Ajima notices this and offers Crane-man work in exchange for food. She does this because she knows that Crane-man is like a father to Tree-ear, and she wants him to feel that his family will be fine while he is away. Crane-man initially refuses her offer because he is too proud to accept food given to him out of pity. However, he changes his mind when he realizes how important the matter is to Tree-ear. All of these characters act others’ best interests, using empathy as their guide.

Taking Chances

Honor, hard work, and respect are not Tree-ear’s only virtues. He is also willing to take chances. At the beginning of the story, Linda Sue Park establishes this character trait in a small exchange between Tree-ear and an impatient farmer. The farmer is carrying a basket of rice on his back, but it has a hole, and rice is falling out. The rice on the ground is a huge prize for Tree-ear, but he does not feel that it would be honorable simply to take it. He waits for a bit more rice to fall to the ground, and then he tells the farmer what is going on. The farmer is grateful to Tree-ear, so he patches his basket and allows Tree-ear to keep the rice that he has already lost. This episode shows that Tree-ear is willing to risk losing a good thing in order to behave honorably. It also shows his cleverness: by allowing a bit more rice to fall to the ground before he speaks, he increases the size of his reward.

Throughout the story, Tree-ear risks rejection, injury, and embarrassment in order to pursue his goals. He risks rejection when he asks to work for Min, and then he accepts the job even when it comes with no pay except a daily meal. He offers to carry Min’s pottery to the capital city in order to help the man pursue a dream, and he continues to pursue that goal even after the pottery breaks. Over time, his willingness to stick to his goals and to take risks earns him the chance to fulfill his dream to become a potter.

Min, a character who is in some ways Tree-ear’s opposite within the story, does not take chances the way Tree-ear does. He cannot bring himself to show Kim flawed pieces of pottery, even though they show his skill. Because of this, he comes close to accepting failure. He achieves his goal only with the help of Tree-ear.


Through A Single Shard, the author suggests that people who do not have families can create them instead. Crane-man and Tree-ear are not related by blood and do not have a home, but they are a family. Crane-man cares for Tree-ear, loves him, and teaches him to be an honorable person. Tree-ear loves Crane-man back and does everything possible to care for the man as he grows old.

Within the story, Min and Ajima have lost a son. Ajima clearly wants Tree-ear to fill the son’s place in their life, but at first Min cannot accept the idea of caring for and teaching a boy who is not his own. However, Tree-ear’s loyalty and talent—as well as the death of Crane-man—ultimately convince Min that he should begin to teach Tree-ear as he would teach his son. In this way, Min, Tree-ear, and Ajima all work together to create a new family out of the losses they have experienced.

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