Sharapova has had a stop-start and injury-hit season since her controversial return at Stuttgart in April, following her ban for using the banned substance meldonium.
Sharapova, 30, and 19-year-old Sabalenka battled for more than two hours in China before the five-time Grand Slam victor sealed a straight sets victory following a tight tiebreak.
Now ranked 86, Sharapova raced into an early 3-0 lead in the second set and saw off her Chinese opponent in 78 minutes to reach her first final in two and a half years.
The former five times Grand Slam victor and world number one is in the final of the WTA Tianjin Open after beating Shuai Peng 6-3 6-1 in her semi-final. Prior to Wimbledon she played primarily ITF events, and lost in the qualifying of three of the four Grand Slams this year.
The Russian star travels home to play in the Kremlin Cup next.
Sharapova, one of the world s highest-earning female athletes, will now expect to win her 36th career title and end a trophy drought of more than two years, the longest since her debut win in 2003.