React Mental Models: The True Face of JSX

What really is a JSX tag? Why bother?

JSX wearing a mask

Look at this React component:

function App() {
  return <input />;
}

It’ll render an HTML input in the browser. It’s a JavaScript function that returns a value.

But let me ask you, what does the function actually return?

An HTML input tag?

A special html-tag value in JavaScript, perhaps similar to a string, number or object?

No. Certainly no. In fact, the code above isn’t pure JavaScript. It’s called JSX. It’s a format that allows us to write tags that pretend to be HTML and embed them in JavaScript code.

Yes, I said pretend. What are those tags really?

Let’s reveal the true face of JSX!

JS In Disguise

JSX tags are JavaScript code in disguise. For example,

<input />

is equivalent to

React.createElement('input')

Our component can be rewritten as:

function App() {
  return React.createElement('input');
}

This makes much more sense, right? In the App function, we call the function createElement and return the result. The parameter is a string which tells React what kind of element we want to create: an input.

With JSX, we can write succinct tags that are both easy to read and write. Under the hood, a tool converts the tags into the corresponding JS code.

Those HTML-ish tags are called elements in React world.

Why Bother Learning This?

I know. You probably don’t plan to work on React itself. Why bother learning things under the hood? Would it help us build apps?

I think it’d help a lot. We don’t want to blindly follow a specific format (tags after return etc.). We want to make sense of the code. We want to be able to freely express our thoughts. We want to take advantage of language/framework features. With a deeper understanding of what’s behind the scene, we can do that.

It’s a bit of superpower. Really.

It’s an expression!

Do you know we can assign a tag to a variable?

let content = <div>Hey!</div>

Or pass a tag around as a function parameter?

showAlert(<div>Hello!</div>)

Or even print it out?

console.log(<input />)

Why can we do that?

It’s not magic. It’s because those tags are just function calls (React.createElement(...)). Like any function call, a JSX tag is a JavaScript expression. We can put it wherever an expression fits.

By the way, if we print out a tag in the console, it’s in fact an ordinary JavaScript object. Again, nothing magical!

Object {type: "input", key: null, ref: null, props: Object, _owner: null}

I don’t know about you, but I once tried to do this:

React.createElement('div').appendChild('input')

You know why it doesn’t work now, right?

What React.createElement creates is a plain object. It’s not a DOM node. We can’t call appendChild on it!

Debugging

Do you know why we’d get an error for the code below?

// import React from 'react';
function App() {
  return <input /> // ❌ Error: React not defined.
}

This is a common mistake when we try to write a component in a blank file. The error is much more visible if we convert the tag into JS:

// import React from 'react';
function App() {
  return React.createElement('div') // ❌ Error: React not defined.
}

Differences between JSX and HTML

Although JSX tags look like HTML, they are not HTML. In fact, there are quite a few differences between the two. For example, a button in HTML looks like this:

<button onclick="alert('OK')">OK</button>

And this is the JSX version:

<button onClick={() => alert('OK')}>OK</button>

There are two notable differences above. First, the attribute in HTML is all lowercase, whereas in JSX it’s camelCase. Second, the attribute values, the parts after =, are quite different.

I’ll cover the details in the next post. For now, I want you to remember the core reason for these differences: JSX tags are fundamentally JavaScript code.

Recap

Here’s the React mental model covered in this post: a JSX tag is JavaScript code pretending to be an HTML tag. It is:

  • a function call
  • an expression
  • and its value is an object.

Remember this. It might open new doors when you write React code.

Quizzes

How much do you remember from this post? Give it a try below!

Q1: What does this function return?

function App() {
  return <strong>Hello!</strong>
}

Q2: What will this component render in the browser?

function App() {
  return 'Message: '+<strong>Hello!</strong>
}

Q3: What will this component render in the browser?

function App() {
  return (
    <input type="text" />
    <button>Send</button>
  )
}

Q4: What will this component render in the browser?

function App() {
  let header = <h1>What is the answer to the ultimate question of life the universe and everything?</h1>
  return header + <p>42</p>
}

Join my newsletter below if you like this post.

Subscribe

© 2020 jimu Labs, Inc.