The Chinese character 公 (gōng) as an adjective stands for being fair, just, equitable, or impartial, and also describes what is public or common to all people.
As a noun, it is used to refer to a duke or lord, the male gender of various animals, or a gentleman, sir, husband, or father-in-law.
公 (gōng) is composed of 八 (bā), two lines depicting the idea of separation, and 厶 (sī), which means private or secret. (八 is also the character for the number eight.)
The combination can be seen to symbolize leaving behind the personal and embracing what is for the public.
According to the first comprehensive Chinese etymological dictionary, “Shuo Wen Jie Zie (說文解字),” or “Explaining Simple and Analyzing Compound Characters,” 公 (gōng) refers to dividing (something) equally.
Examples of terms that contain 公 (gōng) include 公平 (gōng píng), fair or just; 公正 (gong zhèng), impartial, just, or upright; 公道 (gōng dào), justice; 不公 (bù gōng), unjust or unfair; 公理 (gōng lǐ), an axiom or universal principle; and 公德 (gōng dé), public ethics or social morality.
Other examples include 公司 (gōng sī), a company; 公園 (gōng yuán), a park or “public garden”; 公路 (gōng lù), a highway or “public road”; and 公務 (gōng wù), public duties and affairs or official business.
公平交易 (gong píng jiāo yì) refers to fair dealing in business transactions (交易, jiāo yì).
The Chinese language has many idioms and phrases that express the virtue of foregoing self-interest for the common good, such as 憂公忘私 (yōu gōng wàng sī), be concerned with public duties (憂公, yōu gōng) and forget (忘, wàng) what is personal (私, sī).
退食自公 (tuì shí zì gōng) means to reduce food intake (退食, tuì shí) and devote oneself to the public (自公, zì gōng), demonstrating personal integrity by living frugally.
潔己從公 (jié jǐ cóng gōng) depicts keeping oneself clean and honest (潔己, jié jǐ) and being dedicated to public affairs (從公, cóng gōng).
捨己為公 (shě jǐ wèi gōng) describes abandoning personal interests (捨己, shě jǐ) for the public good (為公, wèi gōng).
克己奉公 (kè jǐ fèng gōng) advises exercising self-restraint (克己, kè jǐ) and dedication to public duties (奉公, fèng gōng).
The metric system is called 公制 (gong zhì), and 公 is used as a prefix in metric units of measure. Examples include 公斤 (gōng jīn), kilogram; 公分 (gōng fēn), gram or centimeter; 公寸 (gōng cùn), decimeter; 公尺 (gōng chǐ), meter; and 公里 (gōng lǐ), kilometer.
A number of famous Chinese historical figures are honored with the title of 公.
周公 (zhōu gōng), the Duke of Zhou, played a key role in the founding of the Zhou Dynasty in the 11th century B.C. and is known as an exemplar of filial piety and benevolence.
Guan Yu (關羽), known as 關公 (guān gōng), or Lord Guan, is revered for his martial skills as well as his righteousness and loyalty to Liu Bei, founder of the Shu Han Kingdom during China’s Three Kingdoms Period (A.D. 220–280).
Bao Zheng (包拯), also called 包公 (bāo gōng), is a Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127) magistrate who is regarded as the symbol of justice and fairness in the Far East.