Heading into the event in China, the world number one is locked on 30 Masters titles with Novak Djokovic, but he has the opportunity to make history with the Serbian out injured.
Nadal wasted no time in stamping his authority over Donaldson as he quickly found his groove to record a 6-2 6-1 win.
Success in Shanghai would be a seventh title of the year – and second in as many tournaments - for the 31-year-old, as he continues his sensational resurgence in 2017.
Donaldson looked competitive early on in his first meeting with the 10-time French Open champion, the American not afraid to go for his shots.
However, once Nadal hit his stride, there was nothing the world number 56 could do – his serve looking particularly vulnerable.
Donaldson's groundstrokes also began to go wayward, but on the other side of the net, Nadal was at his sensational best, much to the delight of the crowd.
On the run, his forehand boomed winners down the line, while his ability to adjust his body turned rallies his way.
Having broken at the sixth attempt in game six, Nadal raced into a 5-2 lead with a service game to love, before breaking Donaldson again to move ahead - the American's plight hampered by costly double faults.
With Donaldson's resolve broken, victory was a mere formality for the top seed as he rattled off 12 points in a row, including a sublime half-volley off his toes to move 3-0 ahead.
And with just 53 minutes on the clock, he wrapped things up with a trademark whipped forehand that Donaldson could only watch and admire.