Saturday's pole was 52nd of Vettel's career and fourth in China.
With Mercedes struggling to mount a challenge - Bottas and Hamilton were evenly matched but nearly half a second down the order - the battle for P1 came down to the red-suited drivers.
Valtteri Bottas held off a late surge from Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen to finish second, albeit nine seconds down on a jubilant Ricciardo.
He followed that up with a P4 in Sunday's race as he lacked the pace needed to even challenge for a podium position.
"Thank you guys, great qualifying, great auto", said Vettel, who also started from pole in Bahrain last weekend, over the team radio. "The vehicle was really awesome". "We started the weekend positively in practice, but the auto went away from us today, the pace just wasn't there". I think we could have done it, but this is racing, these things happen.
Raikkonen was surely feeling aggrieved to have surrendered pole after having an edge over Vettel for most of the weekend, but the Finn typically gave nothing away after the session. "It wasn't exactly what I wanted, but we'll go tomorrow and see what we can do".
"Certainly we'll try to have a different outcome than that". Obviously it's going to be a long race. "We were both lucky". Lewis Hamilton starts fourth for Mercedes. Esteban Ocon missed out on a place in the top-ten shootout by another 0.071s in the second Force India, but was 0.175s clear of the fastest McLaren of Fernando Alonso.
I think Valtteri would have deserved to win the race, " he said. "Not ideal. Tomorrow's the day, we'll see what happens".
Work was still being done on the Australian's vehicle as Q1 got underway, but he eventually got out just in time and put together a single timed lap of 1:33.877 to just make it into Q2.
Hamilton will be the favorite despite missing the pole.
Verstappen tried to overtake on the inside of the hairpin however, the Red Bull driver didn't leave enough room and caused both cars to spin. Renault's Nico Hulkenberg and Haas's Romain Grosjean jumped both, but neither of their teammates managed to emulate their performances, securing Verstappen and Ricciardo Q3 berths.
Haas driver Kevin Magnussen was eliminated in Q2 for the first time this season after a poor middle sector on his final lap prevented him from improving. They were so fast on fresh tyres. Brendon Hartley qualified a further 0.3 seconds adrift in 15th. Ricciardo will start the race in P6, alongside teammate Max Verstappen, and you can bet Red Bull would have taken that after final practice. Vettel had the quickest lap in qualifying. The pair remained close afterwards and appeared set for a close fight for victory until a Safety Car was deployed on lap 35, moments after the pair had passed the pit entry.
Lance Stroll in P18 led the Sauber drivers, with Charles Leclerc, who nearly crashed his vehicle when he ran wide out of the last corner before his final lap, heading Marcus Ericsson by half a second.