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Pop and public service: Who is Xi Jinping's wife?

Investors and financial markets are closely watching Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to the U.K. this week, but the First Lady of China, also known as "Mama Peng" is also causing a stir.

The Chinese president's wife, Peng Liyuan, is no stranger to the limelight, however, and there was a time when Peng was more recognised than the man being courted by the U.K.'s monarchy and politicians this week as the couple make a four-day state visit to the U.K. this week.

The 52 year-old has enjoyed an illustrious career of her own as a folk singer performing in over 50 countries and has been a regular on state television regularly singing songs in praise of the ruling Communist party. Coincidentally, she is also a major general in China's People's Liberation Army (PLA).


Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive for a four-day state visit in the U.K. on October 19, 2015.
Toby Melville | WPA Pool | Getty Images
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive for a four-day state visit in the U.K. on October 19, 2015.

In fact, when Xi Jinping was elected president in 2013, Peng was far better known to most Chinese people as a folk singing icon. Her beginnings were far more humble, however.

Peng's Journey

The daughter of an opera singer and school master, Peng was born in Shangdong province in 1962. Various unofficial media accounts note that her family suffered during the Cultural Revolution under Chairman Mao in the late sixties, but Peng's talent for singing was a cause for hope and her ability landed her a place in the Shandong University of Arts specialising in Chinese Folk Songs.

She later attended the Conservatory of Music in Beijing where she apparently sent money home to her family as well as helping poorer students with food stamps.

At the age of 21, Peng shot to fame after performing on a televised New Year's Gala and quickly became a household name, performing regularly for the PLA.

Read More UK rolls out red carpet for China's President Xi

Peng Liyuan met Xi Jinping in 1986 when he was a mid-ranking official in the Communist party. In a 2011 interview, Peng recalled her feelings on meeting the man she would marry the following year: "My heart skipped a beat. Isn't this the ideal husband for me? A simple man with his own ideas," the Guardian newspaper reported.

Soon after they married, the couple had a daughter who has recently graduated from Harvard University last year.

Since embarking on her role as China's first lady in 2013, she has been called a style leader, compared to Carla Bruni Sarkozy, Michelle Obama and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's wife Samatha Cameron.

In line with the Chinese government crackdown on ostentation, however, Peng is known for her simple but elegant style. Adding substance to style, Peng has largely replaced performing with public service and has become a strong advocated of health and the control of tuberculosis and HIV.

As well as being a Goodwill Ambassador for the World Health Organization for Tubercolosis and HIV/AIDS , she is also a UNESCO Special Envoy for the advancement of girls' and women's education.

Read MoreMrs Xi Jinping: China's new source of soft power?

Soft power

The relationship between the strongman Chinese president and his popular wife Peng has been the source of much interest for the Chinese public. A musical homage to the couple that spoke of their "legendary love," entitled "Xi Dada loves Peng Mama," even went viral last year.

The song represented more than that though, according to author Song Zhigang, who told the Zhengzhou Evening News that while President Xi Jinping represented a hero fighting tigers (by cracking down on high-level corruption), Peng Liyuan embodied the nation's "soft power."

She ranks at number 57 on Forbes' list of the 100 most powerful women in the world.

Censors have been true to the government's policy of carefully managing the public image of the First Lady. One particular video that was removed from Chinese news sites showed a seemingly innocent act of chivalry by Russian President Vladimir Putin who wrapped a shawl round Peng Liyuan's shoulders during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing last year.

Peng removed the shawl moments later and was given a coat by an aide, however, and the video was removed from Chinese news sites and social media, showing that officials thought it was inappropriate.

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt. Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld