Minimal React.js Without A Build Step (Updated)

Published Mar 12, 2018Last updated Mar 13, 2018

This post was originally published on February 08, 2018 on Shing's blog

Back in 2016, I wrote a post about how to write a React.js page without a build step. If I remember correctly, at that time the official React.js site have very little information about running React.js without [Webpack][webpack], [in-browser Babel transpiler][babel] is not very stable and they are deprecating JSXTransformer.js. After the post my focus turned to browser backend projects and I haven’t touch React.js for a while. Now after 1.5 years, when I try to update one of [my React.js project][itinerary-viewer], I notice that the official site now has a clearer instruction on how to use React.js without a build step. So I’m going to write an update the post here.

You can find the example code on GitHub.

1. Load React.js from CDN instead of npm

You can use the official minimal HTML template here. The most crucial bit is the importing of scripts:

<script src=""></script>
<script src=""></script>
<script src=""></script>

If you want better error message, you might want to add the crossorigin attribute to the <script> tags, as suggested in the official document. Why the attribute you ask? As describe in MDN, this attribute will allow your page to log errors on CORS scripts loaded from the CDN.

If you are looking for better performance, load the *.production.min.js instead of *.development.js.

2. Get rid of JSX

I’m actually not that against JSX now, but If you don’t want to include the babel.min.js script, you can consider using the React.createElement function. Actually all JSX elements are syntatic sugar for calling React.createElement(). Here are some examples:

can be written as

React.createElement('h1', null, 'Hello World')

And if you want to pass attributes around, you can do

<div onClick={this.props.clickHandler} data={}> Click Me!
React.createElement('div', { 'onClick': this.props.clickHandler, 'data': }, 'Click Me!')

Of course you can have nested elements:

<div> <h1>Hello World</h1> <a>Click Me!</a>
React.createElement('div', null, React.createElement('h1', null, 'Hello World') React.createElement('a', null, 'Click Me!')

You can read how this works in the official documentation.

  1. Split the React.js code into separate files

In the official HTML template, they show how to write script directly in HTML like:

<html> <body> <div id="root"></div> <script type="text/babel"> ReactDOM.render( <h1>Hello, world!</h1>,
 document.getElementById('root') ); </script> </body>

But for real-word projects we usually don’t want to throw everything into one big HTML file. So you can put everything between <script> and </script> in to a separate JavaScript file, let’s name it app.js and load it in the original HTML like so:

<html> <body> <div id="root"></div> <script src="app.js" type="text/babel"></script> </body>

The pitfall here is that you must keep the type="text/babel" attribute if you wants to use JSX. Otherwise the js script will fail when it first reaches a JSX tag, resulting an error like this:

SyntaxError: expected expression, got '<'[Learn More] app.js:2:2

Using 3rd-party NPM components

You can find tons of ready-made React components on NPM, but the quality varies. Some of them are released with browser support, for example Reactstrap, which contains Bootstrap 4 components wrapped in React. In its documentation you can see a “CDN” section with a CDN link, which should just work by adding it to a script tag:

<!-- react-transition-group is required by reactstrap -->
<script src="" charset="utf-8"></script>
<script src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

then you can find the components in a gloabl variable Reactstrap:

<script type="text/babel" charset="utf-8"> // "Import" the components from Reactstrap const {Button} = Reactstrap; // Render a Reactstrap Button element onto root ReactDOM.render( <Button color="danger">Hello, world!</Button>,
 document.getElementById('root') );

(In case you are curious, the first line is the destructing assignment of objects in JavaScript).

Of course it also works without JSX:

<script type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"> // "Import" the components from Reactstrap const {Button} = Reactstrap; // Render a Reactstrap Button element onto root ReactDOM.render( React.createElement(Button, {'color': 'danger'}, "Hello world!"), document.getElementById('root'), );

Modules without browser support

For modules without explicit browser support, you can still try to expose it to the browser with Browserify, as described in this post. Browserify is a tool that converts a Node.js module into something a browser can take. There are two tricks here:

  1. Use the --standalone option so Browserify will expose the component under the window namespace, so you don’t need a module system to use it.
  2. Use the browserify-global-shim plugin to strip all the usage of React and ReactDOM in the NPM module code, so it will use the React and ReactDOM we included using the <script> tags.

I’ll use a very simple React component on NPM, simple-react-modal, to illustrate this. First, we download this module to see what it looks like:

npm install simple-react-modal

If we go to node_modules/simple-react-modal, we can see a pre-built JavaScript package in the dist folder. Now we can install Browserify by npm install -g browserify. But we can’t just run it yet, because the code uses require('react') but we want to use our version loaded in the browser. So we need to install npm install browserify-global-shim and add the configuration to package.json:

// package.json
"browserify-global-shim": { "react": "React", "react-dom": "ReactDOM"

Now we can run

browserify node_modules/simple-react-modal \ -o simple-react-modal-browser.js \ --transform browserify-global-shim \ --standalone Modal

We’ll get a simple-react-modal-browser.js file, which we can just load in the browser using the <script> tag. Then you can use the Modal like so:

<script type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"> // "Import" the components from Reactstrap const Modal = window.Modal.default; // Render a Reactstrap Button element onto root ReactDOM.render( React.createElement(Modal, { 'show': true, 'closeOnOuterClick': true }, React.createElement("h1", null, "Hello") ), document.getElementById('root') );

(There are some implementation detail about the simple-react-modal module in the above code, so don’t be worried if you don’t get everything.)

The benefits

Using this method, you can start prototyping by simply copying a HTML file. You don’t need to install Node.js, NPM and all the NPM modules that quickly make your small proof-of-concept page bloat.

Secondly, this method is compatible with the React-DevTools. Which is available in both Firefox and Chrome. So debugging is much easier.

Finally, It’s super easy to deploy the program. Simply drop the files into any web server (or use GitHub pages). The server doesn’t even need to run Node and NPM, any pure HTTP server will be sufficient. Other people can also easily download the HTML file and start hacking. This is a very nice way to rapidly prototype complex UIs without spending an extra hour setting up all the build steps (and maybe waste another 2 hour helping the team setting their environment).

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