I have suddenly found out that Chinese people use the word tissue instead of the word napkin.

Before I checked that word in the dictionary I couldn't understand what they are talking about. Is there any reason to use one word or another in some situation? How are they different?

  • 1
    What do they use the word tissue for? "Napkin" has different meanings, perhaps regional... And most Chinese people speak in Mandarin or some such, not in English. So what people are you talking about?
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 3:22
  • by napkin I mean - a piece of paper used at table to wipe the lips and fingers Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 3:42
  • I'm surprised that you couldn't understand what they were talking about. May I ask what the actual situation was? Did a Chinese person ask you for some tissue or what happened?
    – Kantura
    Commented May 31, 2020 at 15:39

5 Answers 5


Of course, this is subject to interpretation, and it may be regional, but here is what first pops into my mind when I hear those two words:

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Napkins are used to, say, clean barbecue sauce off my fingers or cheeks; tissues are used to blow my nose (although, in a pinch, I could use one in place of the other). Tissues are generally made gentler, so as not to irritate the sensitive skin around the nose, while napkins are made sturdier, so they don't fall apart when wiping something sticky. That said, it would hardly surprise me of other countries or cultures used the words differently. After all, a biscuit in Alabama is not the same thing as a biscuit in Wales.

As a footnote, there are other ways these words can be used, where they would mean something totally different (e.g., sanitary napkins, or toilet tissue). Other related items include paper towels, and towellettes (or "wet naps").


That's an easy one. Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian restaurants provide tissues instead of napkins. The food and typical eating habits make it more messy, so it's cheaper to use several tissues. A single more expensive napkin wouldn't last for a whole meal. Providing lots of napkins would be expensive. In other words they use facial tissues instead of napkins in restaurants. It doesn't mean a new use of the word by those cultures... it's someone getting confused when they thought the Chinese refer to napkins as tissues. Not that these two terms were far from each other in the first place.

  • 1
    Does that mean that tissue is basically the same, just smaller and thinner? Commented Aug 10, 2012 at 3:45

In British English, a tissue is made of paper and used for sneezing into, removing nasal detritus and mopping up spilt coffee. Bathroom tissue is used for wiping other parts of the anatomy. For cenatory use, a linen or cotton cloth is preferred and is known as a napkin, but when made of paper it is a paper napkin. Because of its other uses, tissue would risk being misunderstood if used in this context. A serviette is the same thing, but the word is used only by the aspirational middle class.


In Australia you can use both, napkin and serviette. In fact, when you go to the supermarket the package has written "Serviette".


While the words 'tissue' and 'napkin' aren't exclusive, in that 'tissue' refers to the quality of the paper whereas 'napkin' refers to the purpose, in coloquial conversation a 'tissue' will typically refer to a facial tissue, used for blowing one's nose.

Napkins can also be considered facial tissues, but the words will typically be understood as meaning a cloth or paper sheet used to protect one's clothing and wipe one's mouth and hands during and after eating, in the case of 'napkin', and a sheet of paper used for cleaning mucus from the nose in the case of a 'tissue', though the latter can, of course, be used for either purpose.

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