Tongan Culture

Core Concepts

  • Modesty
  • Respect (Faka’apa’apa)
  • Collectivism
  • The Tongan ‘Way’ (Anga Fakatonga)
  • Humility (Loto to)
  • Hospitality


Tonga, officially known as the Kingdom of Tonga, is a group of islands located in the South Pacific Ocean. With Samoa and Hawai’i to the north and New Zealand to the south, Tonga is part of the countries and cultures that make up Polynesia. For centuries during the early modern period, Tonga was politically and culturally influential throughout Polynesia. Its people were particularly known for their warrior abilities and navigation skills. The Tongan empire had collapsed by the time the first Europeans made contact with the islands in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Although Tonga was influenced by European contact, especially Christian missionary activity, the country remained sovereign. In 1970, Tonga was granted full independence from voluntary protectorate status under Britain.


Although aspects of the traditional culture have changed due to interactions with the English-speaking West, Tongans continually find ways to uphold the Tongan way of life (anga fakatonga). For example, many Tongans place a high value on their families, paying respect to those of seniority and maintaining oral traditions of storytelling. Modern-day Tongans are often friendly, warm and hospitable people who prioritise positive social interactions over worrying about the future.


Ethnicity and Language

The vast majority of the population identify as ethnic Tongans (97% as of 2016) and are of Polynesian descent.1 Thus, they are ethnically related to Samoans, Tuvaluans and more distantly related to Māori and native Hawaiians. This shared Polynesian heritage is reflected in the culture, such as the primacy of oral traditions and social structures. There is also some Melanesian influence in Tonga due to the country's contact with Fiji. The minority of the population who are not ethnic Tongans include small numbers of other Pacific Islanders, part-Tongans and Europeans. Society is generally free of ethnic tension, mainly as a result of the homogeneity and intermarriage that has blurred distinctive ethnic boundaries.


The primary spoken and official language in Tonga is Tongan, an Oceanic language. Tongan is the most commonly heard language in public places, such as markets, schools, offices and churches. Due to the country’s seventy years as a British protectorate, English is also widespread throughout Tonga and continues to be taught in primary and most high schools.


Geography, Land and Migration

Tonga is an archipelago consisting of over 170 islands, 36 of which are inhabited. There are four major island groups: Tongatapu, Ha’apai, Vava’u and Niua. Most of the population is located on Tongatapu, with most people living in small towns or villages. However, the urban population is steadily growing. Most villages surround an empty area, referred to as mala’e, which is used for social gatherings and events. Many families in Tonga own plots of land dedicated to subsistence farming to grow their foods and spend a bit of time each day tending to their crops.


Every citizen above age 16 is entitled to lease land from the government for a small sum of money. However, the growing population and the concentration of people in urban areas has made it increasingly difficult for people to exercise this constitutional right. Land titles are passed down through the eldest son. Most people who live in larger towns were originally from smaller villages or towns and moved to earn more money for their families. This is usually a temporary move, with many intending to return to their village later.


In recent years, Tongans have been moving abroad to countries such as Australia, New Zealand and the United States in hopes of gaining better employment opportunities. It is common for such migrants to send remittances to their families in Tonga. Indeed, this has become one of the primary sources of income for Tongan families.1 Intermarriage with foreigners has also become more common in recent decades.


The Tongan Way and Tongan Identity

The concept of ‘anga fakatonga' (the ‘Tongan way’ or ‘Tongan custom’) is an important part of the Tongan identity and encompasses all Tongan values, practices, beliefs and behaviours. In the Tongan way, one’s connections to the Christian church and one’s family are of utmost importance.


There are some elements typically identified as deeply important to anga fakatonga. One important element is Tonga’s social structure, which is highly stratified and status-conscious (see Tongan Society and Interactions below). Generally speaking, those of lower status are expected to demonstrate respect (faka’apa’apa) and unwavering obedience towards those of higher status. Talking back (taungutu) to those of higher status or age is generally not acceptable. Gender differences and family structure are also important elements of anga fakatonga, with men and women expected to fulfil designated roles and behaviours (see ‘Gender Roles’ in Family).


Oral traditions and practices are still conducted in many Tongan villages. Genealogies, religious epics, proverbs, myths, poetry, fables and other forms of literature are often passed down and elaborated through generations. Fulfilling oral traditions and duties is often seen as compliance with anga fakatonga (the Tongan way). The sharing of one’s ancestry is particularly important, as many Tongans perceive their identity through their family and genealogies (see ‘Genealogy’ in Family for more information). 


Western Influences on the Tongan Way

Anga fakatonga is holistic, meaning that the Tongan way is often understood as encompassing nearly all facets of life. However, due to the immigration of Tongans abroad and the increasing influence of English-speaking Western cultures, successive generations of Tongans frequently attempt to strike a balance between anga fakatonga and the ‘Pālangi’ (‘Western’) way, also known as anga fakapālangi. For instance, though Tonga youth are generally proud of their heritage, some first-generation Tongan migrants may attempt to distance themselves from what they consider to be the ‘traditional' culture of Tonga. For them, agricultural practices are associated with a hard life and low income, whereas education and urban or foreign employment are seen as a way to rise above such a lifestyle.


Perceived differences between anga fakatonga (the Tongan way) and anga fakapālangi (the Western way) have also made an impression on family relations. For many, adhering to the Tongan way is closely associated with honouring and preserving connections to their family and heritage. However, with modern technologies and the changing perspectives of Tongan youth, interactions with family and interest in genealogies are not as prevalent as they once were. This has led some to question what it personally means to be Tongan.


Although Tongan culture may be understood as a complex blend of anga fakatonga (the Tongan way) and anga fakapālangi (the Western way), the Tongan way is still highly regarded and respected by many Tongans. Anga fakatonga is often understood as the element of Tongan culture that makes it distinct from its Polynesian neighbours and the English-speaking West.


Tongan Social Hierarchy

Gender is the primary determinant of one’s position in the social and familial hierarchy in Tonga. Women are highly respected, as demonstrated through familial interactions (see ‘Gender Roles’ in Family for more information). After gender, the second determinant of hierarchy is age. For example, a 15-year-old girl may have a higher social position than her brother of 20 years old. Therefore, Tonga can be thought of as a matriarchal society.


In addition to these two determinants of one’s social hierarchy, there is a structured class system based on the prestige of one’s family. In this social structure, there is a separation between ideas of one’s ‘social status’ and one’s ‘societal rank’. Social status is the position one inherits from their father, while societal rank is the position one inherits from their mother. ‘Status’ governs the relationships within the kin group, whilst ‘societal rank’ governs relationships across the broader society as a whole. However, these nuances in social position are only important within situations where everyone is already familiar with one another or their family. In contemporary Tonga, there are three social status categories: royalty, noble and commoner. 


The most noticeable time for people’s social statuses and ranks to inform their interactions is at formal social occasions, such as funerals or weddings. In these settings, one can observe how the social structure prescribes people’s actions depending on their class. For instance, the highest noble male would be required to prepare the earth oven (umu) at his paternal aunt’s funeral to demonstrate deference to her. However, even then, the two principles would determine the person’s position differently depending on whether the event is within the kin group, a village or Tongan society as a whole.


From this, one can see that people in Tonga are very aware of their own social standing as well as that of everyone around them. However, one’s rank and status generally does not affect daily interactions. Members of the older generation may be more inclined to openly discuss their titles while the younger generation may not emphasise status and rank during informal interactions. People may also be expected to show deference and respect through communication. Despite the highly hierarchical nature of Tongan society, there is generally no major stratification or social exclusion on the basis on one’s position.


Collectivism and Reciprocity

Tongan society is also collectivistic, meaning that Tongans tend to be group-oriented and interdependent with one another. Individualism, whereby an individual prioritises their personal interests over the group’s, is mostly looked down upon. There is a general expectation that a person will share their success with the members of their immediate and extended family. In Tonga, people typically perceive having enough to share with others as a blessing. A primary example is food; it is polite to share food with others while eating alone (kai po) is considered rude. The term ‘kai po’ is also often used to describe a person as selfish or sneaky.


Relaxed Lifestyle and Outlook

Tongans tend to have a relaxed, gentle and friendly attitude towards life. As the Tongan proverb “oua lau e kafo kae lau e lava” (“stay positive and count your blessings”) expresses, Tongans are often thankful and forward-looking people. There is a general attitude that ‘what could be done today, could be done tomorrow'. This sentiment towards time is not considered lazy but rather an expression of a less worried approach to life. Moreover, people tend to prioritise the present moment over concerns of the future. With this comes the belief that one's attention should be oriented towards spending time with family and friends. As a result, many Tongans are incredibly hospitable, generous and find hastiness during social interactions to be rude.


Tongans are also highly respectful people, with emphasis placed on modesty and humility (loto to). Many Tongans may avoid outward signs of wealth or affection, dress in modest ways and be highly receptive to other people's behaviour. Part of this life approach is often the willingness to apologise and accept forgiveness for one's wrongdoings. Some may offer a gift of food when making an apology to show their humbleness and sincerity.


1 Central Intelligence Agency, 2020

Migration Policy Institute, 2011

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