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A Quick Introduction to React

Hello World #

import React, { ReactElement } from "react"
import ReactDOM from "react-dom"


type HelloProps = { readonly name: string }

function Hello({ name }: HelloProps): ReactElement<HelloProps> {
  return <button>Hello {name}!</button>
}

const helloWorld: ReactElement<HelloProps> = <Hello name="World" />

const rootElement: HTMLElement = document.getElementById("root")
ReactDOM.render(helloWorld, rootElement)

React Components #

The Hello function is a React component, which receives an object containing properties, and returns a ReactElement. Here I do not plan to change the value of the name property, so I annotates it as readonly. But these properties can be mutable. ReactElements can be considered as extensible html elements, or some content to be rendered. A react component may return null for conditional rendering.

Hooks #

Hooks decouple state related logic from components. Like components, hooks are just functions, nothing magical:

const SimpleReact = (function() {
    let state
    return {
      render(Component) {
        const C = Component()
        C.render()
        return C
      },
      useState(initialValue) {
        state = state || initialValue
        function setState(newValue) {
          state = newValue
        }
        return [state, setState]
      }
    }
})()

const useState = SimpleReact.useState
const render = SimpleReact.render

function useCountCharacters(str) {
    const [text, setText] = useState(str)
    const len = text.length
    return [len, setText]
}

function Component() {
    const [len, setLen] = useCountCharacters("")
    return {
      type: txt => setLen(txt),
      render: () => console.log({ len })
    }
}

let App = render(Component) // { len: 0 }
App.type('hello')
App = render(Component) // { len: 5 }

The real React will re-render components on state changes automatically. And there are other kind of hooks, e.g. useEffect for side-effects, triggered on state changes. Also, the real React can handle multiple hooks, which can be considered as an array of hooks. Whatever, the above naive implementation captures the essence of React Hooks.

JSX #

<button>Hello {name}!</button> and <Hello name="World" /> are JSX, an extension to JavaScript, or a DSL to express DOM elements. TypeScript has excellent support for JSX. Thus JSX can be considered as typed HTML template expressions.

Component names such as Hello begin with an uppercase letter, while intrinsic HTML elements such as button begin with a lowercase letter. Certain attributes in HTML are renamed to resolve conflicts with TypeScript keywords. For example, the class attributes are renamed to className in JSX.

A component cannot directly return multiple elements. To return multiple elements, nest them inside a div element, then return that div. Sometimes returning an div element is not possible. For example, nesting multiple <td> elements in div results in invalid HTML. And sometimes, you just do not want to wrap them inside a div element. Under such conditions, you can wrap them inside a <React.Fragment>, which can be considered as a seamless div element.

<React.Fragment> accepts an optional key attribute, which is its only acceptable attribute. For example:

// type annotations omitted for brevity
function Glossary({ items }) {
  return (
    <dl>
      {items.map(item => (
        <React.Fragment key={item.id}>
          <dt>{item.term}</dt>
          <dd>{item.description}</dt>
        </React.Fragment>
      ))}
    </dl>
  )
}

key is a special attribute for React to identify member element in a list. It helps React to detect which members have changed, added, or removed.

JSX is syntax sugar for calling React.createElement, for example, <Hello name="World" /> is equivalent to:

React.createElement(Hello, { name: "World" });

So JSX is optional, you can use React without JSX.

Styling #

React does not have an opinion about how styles are defined. You can define styles in separate *.css files. However, I prefer to define styles in TypeScript than CSS. You can check this comparison of CSS-in-JS. Again, there are a lot of choices.

Among those projects, I checked the five projects written in TypeScript:

stylable has a syntax similar to CSS, while typestyle just uses object literals (no custom AST transform). As I said before, I want to define styles in TypeScript, thus I pick typestyle.

Alternative Implementations #

  1. Preact is the most popular alternative implementation. It is small (3KB gzipped) and fast. However, to leverage many React libraries, preact/compat is required. This compatibility layer is slow.

  2. Inferno is a faster alternative implementation. Unlike Preact, it is not that obsessed about the size (but still small). Like Preact, its compatibility layer inferno-compat has extra overhead. Also, hooks is not supported yet.

  3. Nerv is yet another small alternative implementation. It features compatibility with IE 8 and a more identical React API. Thus there is no nerv-compat.

References #

  1. Learn React in 10 tweets
  2. Deep dive: How do React hooks really work?