This article examines the Chinese state's moral performance during several major disasters, including the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the 1998 Yangtze River floods, and the 1976 Tangshan earthquake. Drawing on the theatrical theory of symbolic politics, I argue that the Sichuan earthquake marked a turn in the state's moral performance. While the Chinese state continued to project an image of a secure, heroic state, it endeavoured to construct a sympathetic image through leaders' displays of compassion and sorrow, a mourning ritual for ordinary victims, and narratives of response and rescue. This shift towards a more compassionate performance can be explained by the state's deployment of cultural resources to respond to societal challenges since the new millennium and its effort to repair its image amid the crises of 2008. The compassionate performance was temporarily effective because it found common ground with the traditional political culture of disaster, which still shapes the public's expectations of the state's moral conduct, and the new public culture that values equality and dignity of human life. Nevertheless, the political dilemmas of the compassionate performance became evident. Its efficacy largely relied on the presentation of suffering at the scene, which, however, led to public demands for the state to address the causes of the suffering. When the state failed to construct an “accountable state” image, this “dilemma of scene” had repercussions for its legitimacy. The efficacy of paternalism was also limited because it was less appealing to the growing urban middle class. By addressing moral performance, this paper contributes to the literature on politics of disaster and advances the important research agenda on cultural governance.