McLaren's Lewis Hamilton qualified second, but will have to start Sunday's race from seventh due to a five-place grid penalty for changing his gearbox.
Michael Schumacher qualified third, but will be promoted to start beside his Mercedes teammate on the front row due to Hamilton's penalty.
The biggest surprise of qualifying was the absence of world champion Sebastian Vettel from the final session. He missed out on the top 10 by just five hundredths of a second and will start the race from 11th.
Rosberg did only one lap in the final session of qualifying to preserve his tires, then watched from the pit to see whether anyone could beat his time. His time was a full half-second ahead of Hamilton.
"It was strange before because I was standing there on my own and everybody else is still going out and I can't do anything anymore. Very strange," he said.
The true test for Mercedes will come in the race. The team had also exhibited strong one-lap pace in qualifying in Australia and Malaysia, but in both races the car was well off the pace in the race. Mercedes had been trying to remedy its quick tire degradation since, and Sunday's race will be the test of that effort.
Hamilton was attempting to top qualifying for the third straight race to start the season, but the McLarens could not match a Mercedes car which is tailor-made for the China circuit and its very long straight.
Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi was an impressive fourth in qualifying, followed by Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus, Jenson Button of McLaren, Mark Webber of Red Bull and Sergio Perez of Sauber.
Fernando Alonso of Ferrari and Romain Grosjean of Lotus rounded out the top 10.
Vettel was well off the pace of Red Bull teammate Webber in the second qualifying session. The Australian is using a revamped exhaust system this weekend, which Vettel had decided to forego as the reduced downforce did not suit his driving style.
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