"I am one of the last left, you know," Madame Han tells onlookers. Han is 84 years old, and has tiny bound feet. We are in a shoemaker's in Shanghai and she waits patiently as the shoemaker's assistant takes her measurements.
"Strange to think it was an erotic thing," the boss Li Wanhong says to me as we watch. "To us, the smell of rotting flesh would be unbearable. But back then men wrote poems about the rich smell."
Li is the 45-year-old owner of the last workshop in China producing tiny cloth shoes for elderly women whose feet were bound before the practice finally died out in the 1920s. The youngest of her customers is 80 years old, the oldest 101.
Li's staff of five work from a front room in an apartment in a residential area of Shanghai's Pudong district, sitting among piles of boxes ready to ship. Mainly, the workshop produces handmade slippers in adult sizes -- but these former employees of the state-owned Shanghai shoemaking factory are also accidental heirs of a 1,000-year-old tradition.
"We don't really aim to make money from the miniature shoes," Li said. "But somebody has to do it."
The origins of footbinding are controversial. Tradition places the birth of the practice in the imperial court of the late 10th century -- aristocratic women, the story goes, envied the graceful small feet of a particularly beautiful palace dancer, giving rise to a fad which spread to towns and villages across the country. This was the story mothers passed on to their daughters as they tightened the bandages.
Modern academics point out however that a small foot featured in the Chinese conception of beauty long before the 10th century. The final process probably evolved from less vicious techniques, as families experimented with ever tighter binds in the quest for the smallest foot in town. And there may still have been an element of royal endorsement; the practice may have been adopted at the imperial court to prevent concubines escaping the harem. The castration of the palace eunuchs certainly demonstrates an acceptance of bodily mutilation to serve imperial ends.
There is much here we don't know; what we do know is that the process of binding a foot was agonizing -- so painful that by some estimates one girl in 10 died of shock in the first few days.
Beginning when the girl was perhaps aged six, the mother would wrap a 3m bandage around her daughter's toes, forcing all but the big toe to fold back underneath the sole. This would be tightened over time, causing constant discomfort -- and because it restricted the blood supply to the extremities there was a good chance it would cause necrosis of the foot, as in cases of frostbite.
"Sometimes this would result in an auto amputation," said Adam McGeoch is a medical researcher based at Cambridge University. "The toe would slough off."
"Certainly in the early stages, while necrosis was taking place, there would be a strong smell," McGeoch said. "Not so much once the foot was dead. If the adult foot had a smell, probably it was bacteria, trapped in the folds between the remains of the bent-over toes and what would normally be the sole of the foot."
It is difficult to estimate the number of women with bound feet who are still alive today. In the modern cities, where the practice died out earliest, numbers are very few; Li Wanhong knows of only 80 in the greater Shanghai area. Larger numbers are found in certain rural areas, and in 2001, Chinese Television estimated that nationwide there may still have been a million women alive who had experienced binding in some form.