The novel begins with a young boy named Tree-ear, whose parents died from a fever, leaving him an orphan. He lives under a bridge in twelfth-century Korea with a physically disabled man called Crane-man. Crane-man is a wise and very honorable man who is now raising Tree-ear. Tree-ear is fascinated with the potter’s craft and loved to watch one of the master potter’s in the village, named Master Min create beautiful celadon pottery. In the beginning of the novel, Tree-ear was going to watch Min and discovered he wasn’t home. Tree-ear sneaks into Min’s house looking for him. Min surprises him and catches Tree-ear touching his work. Tree-ear accidently breaks one of Min’s pots because Min scared him. Tree-ear must then work for Min until his debt is paid off. During this time, Tree-ear hopes Min will teach him how to make pottery.
Min is the best potter in the village, but he is also old, cranky and never gives Tree-ear compliments for any work he does. When Tree-ear’s debt is paid, Min asks him to stay and continue working for him. Min pays Tree-ear by feeding him for the work he does. Min still doesn’t compliment Tree-ear for his work and still does not show Tree-ear how to make pottery. Next, the emperor’s assistant comes to the village and announces the emperor is looking for a new commission. All the potters work hard to make their best piece in hopes theirs will be selected. During this time, Tree-ear secretly sees a potter named Kang creating a new technique for making inlaid designs of white clay in his pieces.