The German, who won the season’s first two races, is joined on the front row for Sunday’s race by Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo after a late burst left Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel on the second row.
World champion Lewis Hamilton will start at the back of the grid, however, after mechanical failure effectively dashed his hopes of a hat-trick of wins in China.
“The whole weekend has gone well,” Rosberg told reporters after qualifying, which was delayed for 20 minutes after Pascal Wehrlein crashed his Manor into a wall moments into the first session.
“To get the lap done and put it on pole, I’m happy with that — but not ecstatic because Lewis had bad luck and broke down. That fight didn’t happen, but anyway I’m pleased.”
Raikkonen had looked set to claim his first pole since 2008 until a mistake at the hairpin left Rosberg celebrating his first of the season after being out-qualified by Hamilton in Australia and Bahrain.
“It’s a shame,” said Raikkonen, typically without a flicker of emotion despite blowing a golden opportunity. “We had a chance to be on top today but that’s how it goes. I was quite a bit up on that lap but I ran wide on the hairpin and obviously lost a lot of time.”
Ricciardo surprised himself with his late heroics.
“Second is pretty awesome,” beamed the Australian. We didn’t expect this!”
Rosberg will be favourite to claim his 17th career victory on Sunday and become only the fourth driver to win six Formula One races in a row after winning the last five dating back to last year.
But Ferrari, who have struggled with reliability this season, have shown blistering pace in Shanghai. Vettel insisted it was still game on, despite Rosberg making it three poles in a row for the Silver Arrows.
“I think we can be quicker than the Red Bull,” said the German. “Tomorrow our target is to get forward from where we are now.”
Former world champion Fernando Alonso, cleared to race this weekend after fracturing ribs in a horrific crash at last month’s season-opener in Melbourne, starts from 12th.
Informed he had not made it into the final session of qualifying, which reverted to last season’s three-period knockout system format after this year’s system was ditched, Alonso screamed into the radio: “Aaaaaaaarrrrgggggh!”