Peng Liyuan, Xi Jinping, Michelle/Barack Obama
Obama hosted a lavish state dinner for President Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan at the White HouseReuters

All eyes will be on Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan during their upcoming trip to London on Tuesday (20 October), which will be China's first state visit in a decade. But who is Peng Liyuan?

In China, she's a huge star who performed on state-run television for decades, singing propaganda folk songs with titles like Plains of Hope and People From Our Village. She also starred in an annual Lunar New Year gala broadcast on state television for 24 years, watched by hundreds of millions of viewers - so when her husband Xi was elected to the office of vice president in 2008, Peng was far better known to most Chinese.

A hugely popular figure in China, the 52-year-old has dedicated herself to charity work, providing testimonials for anti-smoking and safe-sex campaigns. In 2011 became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations World Health Organisation, and she also holds the equivalent of a major general's rank in the People's Liberation Army - the youngest civilian ever to receive the distinction.

The high-profile political spouse - or Mama Peng as loyal fans know her - has been compared to America's First Lady Michelle Obama, former French first lady Carla Bruni and even the Duchess of Cambridge, whom Peng will dine with at a lavish state banquet this week.

But she has not been without her share of controversy. Although China has tried to quash the evidence, photos show her singing to People's Liberation Army troops in 1989, following a bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tianamen Square. For Beijing, it's been a tough balance between allowing popular Peng to carry out her undeclared mission to build soft power without overshadowing her husband and the party propaganda line.

In contrast, many in the West only became aware of China's glamorous first lady last year, when she was on the receiving end of a spontaneous (and unsolicited) gesture from Russian President Vladmir Putin, who made a show of wrapping a blanket round Peng's shoulders during a particularly chilly night at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing.

Peng had been sitting between husband and the Russian leader, but as Xi chatted with US President Barack Obama, Putin stood up and wrapped a blanket round her shoulders. Peng graciously accepted but slipped off the blanket moments later, handing it to an aide in exchange for a coat. The scene was captured by China's state-run CCTV television, but after the video was reposted countless times and went viral online, its censors removed the video - creating even more of a fuss.