Acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL) is a blood system disease caused by the accumulation of a large number of immature blood cells in bone marrow. Although the introduction of all- trans retinoic acid (ATRA) and arsenic has reached a high level of complete remission rate and 5-year disease-free survival rate, the occurrence of various adverse reactions still severely affects the quality of life of patients. As a natural product, honokiol (HNK) has the advantages of low toxicity and high efficiency, and it is a potential drug for the treatment of cancer. Since cancer cells can escape apoptotic cell death through multiple adaptive mechanisms, HNK, a drug that induces cancer cell death in a nonapoptotic way, has attracted much interest. We found that HNK reduced the viability of human APL cell line (NB4 cells) by inducing paraptosis-like cell death. The process was accompanied by excessive reactive oxygen species (ROS), mitochondrial damage, endoplasmic reticulum stress, and increased microtubule-associated protein 1 light chain 3 (LC3) processing. The inactivation of proteasome activity was the main cause of misfolded and unfolded protein accumulation in endoplasmic reticulum, such as LC3II/I and p62. This phenomenon could be alleviated by adding cycloheximide (CHX), a protein synthesis inhibitor. We found that mTOR signaling pathway participated in paraptosis-like cell death induced by HNK in an autophagy-independent process. Moreover, the mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK) signaling pathway induced paraptosis of NB4 cells by promoting endoplasmic reticulum stress. In summary, these findings indicate that paraptosis may be a new way to treat APL, and provide novel insights into the potential mechanism of paraptosis-like cell death. Supplementary Information The online version of this article (10.1007/s10495-020-01655-9) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.