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Social reformers must be both artists and engineers

Auckland, New Zealand

The Editor

Tufunga fonua: The Tongan "material" art of reforming and transforming society

Generally, there has been a consistent push for reforming or transforming Tongan society, taking place within and outside of the country. This is because Tonga is a country that is in a serious state of crisis. Specifically, this clear call for change is felt mostly in the economic and political arenas.

Obviously, it is a fact that the social organisation and political distribution of her economic resources are in a state of serious crisis. In the final analysis, there is a serious state of crisis in Tonga...’s leadership. We must see to it that this state of chaos is duly transformed into a condition of harmony.

Tufunga as material art: Quality and utility

Generally, Tongan art can be divided into two types: tufunga, material arts (e.g., tufunga lalava, tufunga fo...’uvaka, tufunga langafale and tufunga nimatapu, amongst many others), and faiva, performance arts (e.g., faiva ta...’anga, faiva hiva, faiva faifolau and faiva fakaoli, amidst many others). The former is non-body-centred, while the latter is body-centred.

All art forms, both tufunga and faiva, were produced on the basis of both beauty and functionality. Not only were they expected to be beautiful, they were also required to be of use to people. For example, tufunga lalava, the Tongan material art of lineal-spatial intersection, does not only produce kupesi, geometric designs, of immense beauty but it also functions to hold house or boat parts together.

Tufunga fonua: Material art of mediating social conflicts

As a material art form, tufunga fonua engages in mediating human conflicts between social groups and social institutions, transforming them from a state of social disharmony to a condition of social harmony. Having achieved this aesthetic dimension, tufunga fonua therefore functions in such a way that it brings order to society.

Lo'au and Queen Salote as renowned tufunga fonua

As the original tufunga fonua, Lo'au has been credited for many of the best and lasting changes taking place in ancient Tonga. For example, the creation of the kava institution saved the reign of his "tyrannical" grandson, Tu...’itatui, 11th Tu...’i Tonga, from the ominous rebellion of his severely subjugated subjects.

I regard this as the traditional constitution of the Tu'i Tonga dynasty, given that it functioned as a socio-psychological measure of the politico-economic climate of the wider Tongan society. As a social institution, it "constituted" a form of "averaging-out" of the totality of group interests within the whole of Tongan society. The same analogy applies to the 1875 constitution, formed under the partnership between Taufa...’ahau and Mr Baker.

However, the kava institution was reinforced by Lo...’au...’s land reform popularly known as vahefonua ...‘a Lo...’au. Also, Lo...’au played a key role in the socio-political reforms that resulted in the creation of Tu...’i Ha...’atakalaua and Tu...’i Kanokupolu dynasties. In all these instances, Lo...’au as a tufunga fonua was able to reconcile these inherent conflicts by transforming them into social harmony.

On the other hand, the reign of Queen Salote can be characterised by her great skills as a tufunga fonua. The Queen was physically, mentally and socially endowed with intimate knowledge and skills, all of which were deeply embedded in her great leadership as a beloved leader.

These unique leadership qualities were manifested in her values such as Ko e tu...’i mo hono kakai, pea mo e kakai mo honau tu...’i, recognising the very historical fact that all things, in nature, mind and society, stand in relations of exchange to each other, and that peace and prosperity could only be achieved in making them balance.

Some major social reforms in the history of Tonga

Social reforms or transformations are not foreign as a concept and practice to Tonga. In fact, Tonga has undergone some major social reforms of greater political and economic significance in her long history.

Tonga underwent three major name changes, beginning with Touia-...’o-Futuna through Tongamama...’o to Tonga, which corresponded to the main social reforms in the broader imperial relationships between Tu...’i Pulotu in Lau, eastern Fiji, Tu...’i Manu...’a in eastern Samoa and Tu...’i Tonga in Tonga.

With the creation of the Tu...’i Tonga dynasty, Tonga experienced another major social reform. This was followed by one at the time of Tu...’itatui, 11th Tu...’i Tonga, who was responsible for the expansion of the Tongan empire beyond Tonga, then the creation of Tu...’i Ha...’atakalaua and Tu...’i Kanokupolu dynasties respectively.

Powerful Samoan influence

When creating the Tu...’i Kanokupolu dynasty, the powerful Samoan relatives of Ngata, 1st Tu...’i Kanokupolu, began to turn the highly "centralised" Tu...’i Tonga political system on its head, subjecting it to political "fragmentation" typical of Samoan politics. This was conducted in what I call the "Samoan way of doing politics".

In fact, this is the beginning of what I also refer to as the "democratisation" of Tonga, a long transforming process that culminated in the revolution of Taufa...’ahau, who made use of both internal and external influences in his reforming and transforming of Tongan society. This was justified once and for all by the establishment of the 1875 constitution, resulting from a special political partnership between him and Mr Baker.

The moral of the story

Social reformers must be both social artists and social engineers, embracing a sense of both beauty and functionality. Besides a thorough-going knowledge of the place of Tonga in the so-called global village, they must be seen to have some familiarity with the Tongan aesthetic and political concepts and practices of tufunga fonua, social art, and liliu fakafonua, social reformation and transformation. In short, I refer here to an objective knowledge of both the ta and va, time and space, fuo and uho, form and content, of the concept and practice of liliu fakafonua, social reformation and transformation.

...‘Ofa atu fau,

Dr ...‘Okusitino Mahina

Lecturer in Pacific political economy & Pacific arts


University of Auckland

o [dot] mahina [at] auckland [dot] ac [dot] nz ">o [dot] mahina [at] auckland [dot] ac [dot] nz