Thousands of protesters staged an anti-Japanese demonstration in front the Japanese embassy in China's capital of Beijing on Saturday.

The event was one of several large protests across China over Japan's control of disputed islands, with a mass rally in Beijing turning violent before being brought under control by police.

Some protesters threw rocks and burned Japanese flags in front of the Japanese embassy in the capital.

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A demonstrator kicks a Japanese-brand car during a protest in Chongqing on Saturday. (Reuters)

Others tried to breach a metal police barricade but were pushed back by riot police.

"I want to call on everyone in China, the young people, to stand up and stand tall. Tell the Japanese people that we cannot lose our Diaoyu Island, nor forget what has happened to our country in the past," said Zhang Zhong outside the Japanese embassy.

Protests also took place in at least a dozen other cities, with only a few reports of clashes.

Japan controls the disputed East China Sea islands, which are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and are near key shipping lanes, but China doesn't recognise those claims.

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Demonstrators hold Chinese flags and banners beside an overturned car of a Japanese brand during a protest in Xi'an, Shaanxi province on Saturday. (Rooney Chen/Reuters)

Anti-Japanese sentiment has been building for weeks over the islands and feelings intensified this week after the Japanese government purchased the islands from their private owners.

Though Japan has controlled the islands for decades, China saw the purchase as further proof of Tokyo's refusal to negotiate.

The uninhabited islands, claimed by both countries as well as Taiwan, have become a rallying point for nationalists on both sides.

In response to Japan's purchase, China on Friday sent six surveillance ships into what Japan says are its territorial waters around the islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

Japanese coast guard ships radioed warnings to the Chinese vessels and two or three moved out of the territorial waters.