Write your own Python bindings

Published Thursday May 31st, 2018
7 Comments on Write your own Python bindings
Posted in Qt for Python


In a previous blog post we touched upon the topic of creating Python bindings for the Qt libraries.

Today however, we’ll take a sneak peek at how you can create bindings for your own project.

We are happy to announce that Qt for Python will also include Shiboken – our binding generation tool.

Read the material below and you’ll obtain an understanding of how to generate Python bindings for a simple C++ library. Hopefully it will encourage you to do the same with custom libraries of your own.

As with any Qt project we are happy to review contributions to Shiboken, thus improving it for everyone.

Sample library

For the purposes of this post, we will use a slightly nonsensical custom library called Universe. It provides two classes: Icecream and Truck.
Icecreams are characterized by a flavor. And Truck serves as a vehicle of Icecream distribution for kids in a neighborhood. Pretty simple.

We would like to use those classes inside Python though. A use case would be adding additional ice cream flavors or checking whether ice cream distribution was successful.

In simple words, we want to provide Python bindings for Icecream and Truck, so that we can use them in a Python script of our own.

We will be omitting some content for brevity, but you can check the full source code inside the repository under pyside-setup/examples/samplebinding.

The C++ library

First, let’s take a look at the Icecream header:

class Icecream
    Icecream(const std::string &flavor);
    virtual Icecream *clone();
    virtual ~Icecream();
    virtual const std::string getFlavor();

    std::string m_flavor;

and the Truck header:

class Truck {
    Truck(bool leaveOnDestruction = false);
    Truck(const Truck &other);
    Truck& operator=(const Truck &other);

    void addIcecreamFlavor(Icecream *icecream);
    void printAvailableFlavors() const;

    bool deliver() const;
    void arrive() const;
    void leave() const;

    void setLeaveOnDestruction(bool value);
    void setArrivalMessage(const std::string &message);

    void clearFlavors();

    bool m_leaveOnDestruction = false;
    std::string m_arrivalMessage = "A new icecream truck has arrived!\n";
    std::vector m_flavors;

Most of the API should be easy enough to understand, but we’ll summarize the important bits:

  • Icecream is a polymorphic type and is intended to be overridden
  • getFlavor() will return the flavor depending on the actual derived type
  • Truck is a value type that contains owned pointers, hence the copy constructor and co.
  • Truck stores a vector of owned Icecream objects which can be added via addIcecreamFlavor()
  • The Truck’s arrival message can be customized using setArrivalMessage()
  • deliver() will tell us if the ice cream delivery was successful or not

Shiboken typesystem

To inform shiboken of the APIs we want bindings for, we provide a header file that includes the types we are interested in:

#ifndef BINDINGS_H
#define BINDINGS_H
#include "icecream.h"
#include "truck.h"
#endif // BINDINGS_H

In addition, shiboken also requires an XML typesystem file that defines the relationship between C++ and Python types:

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<typesystem package="Universe">
    <primitive-type name="bool"/>
    <primitive-type name="std::string"/>
    <object-type name="Icecream">
        <modify-function signature="clone()">
            <modify-argument index="0">
                <define-ownership owner="c++"/>
    <value-type name="Truck">
        <modify-function signature="addIcecreamFlavor(Icecream*)">
            <modify-argument index="1">
                <define-ownership owner="c++"/>

The first important thing to notice is that we declare "bool" and "std::string" as primitive types.
A few of the C++ methods use these as parameter / return types and thus shiboken needs to know about them. It can then generate relevant conversion code between C++ and Python.
Most C++ primitive types are handled by shiboken without requiring additional code.

Next, we declare the two aforementioned classes. One of them as an “object-type” and the other as a “value-type”.

The main difference is that object-types are passed around in generated code as pointers, whereas value-types are copied (value semantics).

By specifying the names of the classes in the typesystem file, shiboken will automatically try to generate bindings for all methods declared in the classes, so there is no need
to mention all the method names manually…

Unless you want to somehow modify the function. Which leads us to the next topic: ownership rules.

Shiboken can’t magically know who is responsible for freeing C++ objects allocated in Python code. It can guess, but it’s not always the correct guess.
There can be many cases: Python should release the C++ memory when the ref count of the Python object becomes zero. Or Python should never delete the C++ object assuming that it will
be deleted at some point inside the C++ library. Or maybe it’s parented to another object (like QWidgets).

In our case the clone() method is only called inside the C++ library, and we assume that the C++ code will take care of releasing the cloned object.

As for addIcecreamFlavor(), we know that a Truck owns an Icecream object, and will remove it once the Truck is destroyed. Thus again, the ownership is set to “c++.”
If we didn’t specify the ownership rules, in this case, the C++ objects would be deleted when the corresponding Python names go out of scope.


To build the Universe custom library and then generate bindings for it, we provide a well-documented, mostly generic CMakeLists.txt file, which you can reuse for your own libraries.

It mostly boils down to calling “cmake .” to configure the project and then building with the tool chain of your choice (we recommend the ‘(N)Makefiles’ generator though).

As a result of building the project, you end up with two shared libraries: libuniverse.(so/dylib/dll) and Universe.(so/pyd).
The former is the custom C++ library, and the latter is the Python module that can be imported from a Python script.

Of course there are also intermediate files created by shiboken (the .h / .cpp files generated for creating the Python bindings). Don’t worry about them unless you need to
debug why something fails to compile or doesn’t behave as it should. You can submit us a bug report then!

More detailed build instructions and things to take care of (especially on Windows) can be found in the example README.md file.

And finally, we get to the Python part.

Using the Python module

The following small script will use our Universe module, derive from Icecream, implement virtual methods, instantiate objects, and much more:

from Universe import Icecream, Truck

class VanillaChocolateIcecream(Icecream):
    def __init__(self, flavor=""):
        super(VanillaChocolateIcecream, self).__init__(flavor)

    def clone(self):
        return VanillaChocolateIcecream(self.getFlavor())

    def getFlavor(self):
        return "vanilla sprinked with chocolate"

class VanillaChocolateCherryIcecream(VanillaChocolateIcecream):
    def __init__(self, flavor=""):
        super(VanillaChocolateIcecream, self).__init__(flavor)

    def clone(self):
        return VanillaChocolateCherryIcecream(self.getFlavor())

    def getFlavor(self):
        base_flavor = super(VanillaChocolateCherryIcecream, self).getFlavor()
        return base_flavor + " and a cherry"

if __name__ == '__main__':
    leave_on_destruction = True
    truck = Truck(leave_on_destruction)

    flavors = ["vanilla", "chocolate", "strawberry"]
    for f in flavors:
        icecream = Icecream(f)


    result = truck.deliver()

    if result:
        print("All the kids got some icecream!")
        print("Aww, someone didn't get the flavor they wanted...")

    if not result:
        special_truck = Truck(truck)
        del truck

        special_truck.setArrivalMessage("A new SPECIAL icecream truck has arrived!\n")
        special_truck.addIcecreamFlavor(Icecream("SPECIAL *magical* icecream"))
        print("Now everyone got the flavor they wanted!")

After importing the classes from our module, we create two derived Icecream types which have customized “flavours”.

We then create a truck, add some regular flavored Icecreams to it, and the two special ones.

We try to deliver the ice cream.
If the delivery fails, we create a new truck with the old one’s flavors copied over, and a new *magical* flavor that will surely satisfy all customers.

The script above succinctly shows usage of deriving from C++ types, overriding virtual methods, creating and destroying objects, etc.

As mentioned above, the full source and additional build instructions can be found in the project repository under pyside-setup/examples/samplebinding.

We hope that this small introduction showed you the power of Shiboken, how we leverage it to create Qt for Python, and how you could too!

Happy binding!

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Posted in Qt for Python


VRonin says:

Great news, this looks simple enough to actually get people to build the binding.
It would be great to have an example that actually uses Qt types.
Say a QObject or QWidget subclass that handles value type (QStrings for example) members

Alexandru says:

Unsurprisingly, we’ve already received this suggestion from other people.
We’ll think about the best way of doing this.

Daker Pinheiro says:

This old blog post explains a bit about Shiboken:

Sébastien says:

Will the generated library use the Python Stable ABI? So a single so/pyd can be used across various Python versions?

Alexandru says:

Yes. The necessary changes to implement that were merged 1-2 days ago.

Alex says:

Next step: Make the bindings Pythonic! Seriously, it would be much more fun to work with the bindings if they would use properties, snake_casing and so on.

Cristián Cristián says:

We want to be compatible with the Qt API, changing the bindings will stop any new user to adapt Qt/C++ code, and furthermore we will break all the current PySide2 applications, and we don’t want that.

Commenting closed.

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