In many example sentences for the chengyu

war exploits; (fig.) heroic contribution[src]

we see 立下了汗马功劳, e.g.:

他参加过许多战役, 立下了汗马功劳, 但他仍然很谦虚。

I don't understand this because 立下 = "to set up; to establish"[src]. It doesn't make sense to me how someone can "set up war exploits", etc. I'm sure I'm misunderstanding something here.

Question: How should I understand 立下了 ("set up") 汗马功劳 ("war exploits")?

  • 1
    Try to search the word 立功, which is a normal collocation.
    – dan
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 2:20

2 Answers 2


立下 can be understood in a more smooth manner. It can represent set up as you said, when trying to express set up a contract or so. Examples include 立下誓言。

But in general it can also generalize to mean create, or make something happen. 立下誓言=make the 誓言 happen,立下汗马功劳=make the 汗马功劳 happen,etc。

Also, as Ho pointed out in the answer, 立功 is a common collocation, as earn credits for one's contribution. However I disagree with his understanding on properly usage of the 汗马功劳. Your example is completely correct in modern Chinese, and holds even in its original meaning (which specifies on military contributions).

  • Nothing wrong with 立下汗马功劳. I disagree with following it with 仍然很谦虚, It implies 汗马功劳 is something people would pridefully be proud of. I argue it is something people would modestly be proud of
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 4:08
  • For example, someone worked for a company for 30 years, although he never made any big difference, he has been dutiful in his job. He can modestly feel proud of it . But it is not some kind of glory that he can be prideful for.
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 4:22

Easier to remember if you think graphically -- 立下 (erect down)-- imagine 'erect a flag to mark something' = establish'

  • 立先例 (establish a precedent)

  • 立誓 (establish a pledge)

  • 立规则 (establish a rule)

  • 立戰功 (establish war exploits)

他参加过许多战役, 立下了汗马功劳, 但他仍然很谦虚。

The example didn't use the phrase correctly. 汗马功劳 is mostly a 'modest phrase' --stating one's contribution is not a 'credit for heroic deed' but a 'credit for dutifully served'

  • A general won a war that saved the nation has achieved a 天大功劳 (great credit)

  • A soldier dutifully fought many battles for the country has accumulated many 汗马功劳 (credit for dutifully served) -- even if most of them were losing ones

Similarly, if you call a fireman hero, he would modestly say "I am not a hero, I am just a guy doing his job" (a guy dutifully doing his job is praise worthy, but not to the point of heroic)

立功 means 'achieve/obtain credit (for contribution)'

下 in 立下功劳 is a result complement that indicates the verb 立 is successful

立下了汗马功劳 = have accumulated credit for dutifully served

  • war exploits = 战功 (mainly credited to the fighting members of the army)

  • 汗马功劳 can be credited to the fighting members or the supporting members of the army

  • Not sure why you said "The example didn't use the phrase correctly". I don't see any problems there.
    – dan
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 2:17
  • 立下了汗马功劳 doesn't match 仍然很谦虚; 立下了戰功無數, 仍然很谦虚 would be more suitable
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 2:22
  • 戰功 is the glory one can be pridefully proud of ; 汗马功劳 is the achievement one can be modestly proud of (have done one's job dutifully )
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 2:31
  • I just can not agree on your understanding about this as a native, but no need to argue about it.
    – dan
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 2:35
  • Why you think Cantonese speakers are not native Chinese? We use the same idioms and write the same SWC too.
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jun 21, 2020 at 2:39

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