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Emulating property literals with Java 8 method references

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One of the things library developers often miss in Java are property literals. In this post I’m going to show how to make creative use of Java 8 method references to emulate property literals, with the help of some byte code generation.

Akin to class literals (e.g. Customer.class), property literals would allow to refer to the properties of a bean class in a type-safe manner. This would be useful for designing APIs that run actions on specific bean properties or apply some means of configuration to them. E.g. consider the API for programmatic configuration of index mappings in Hibernate Search:

new SearchMapping().entity( Address.class )
    .property( "city", ElementType.METHOD )

Or the validateValue() method from the Bean Validation API for validating a value against the constraints of a single property:

Set<ConstraintViolation<Address>> violations = validator.validateValue( Address.class, "city", "Purbeck" );

In both cases a String is used to represent the city property of the Address class.

That’s error-prone on several levels:

  • The Address class might not have a property city at all. Or one could forget to update that String reference when renaming the property.

  • In the case of validateValue(), there is no way for making sure that the passed value actually satisfies the type of the city property.

Users of the APIs will only find out about these issues when actually running their application. Wouldn’t it be nice if instead the compiler and the language’s type system prevented such wrong usages from the beginning? If Java had property literals, that’d be exactly what you’d get (invented syntax, this does not compile!):

mapping.entity( Address.class )
    .property( Address::city, ElementType.METHOD )


validator.validateValue( Address.class, Address::city, "Purbeck" );

The issues mentioned above would be avoided: Having a typo in a property literal would cause a compilation error which you’d notice right in your IDE. It’d allow to design the configuration API in Hibernate Search in a way to accept only properties of Address when configuring the Address entity. And in case of Bean Validation’s validateValue(), literals could help to ensure that only values can be passed, that are assignable to the property type in question.

Java 8 method references

While Java 8 has no real property literals (and their introduction isn’t planned for Java 9 either), it provides an interesting way to emulate them to some degree: method references. Having been introduced to improve the developer experience when using Lambda expressions, method references also can be leveraged as poor-man’s property literals.

The idea is to consider a reference to a getter method as a property literal:

validator.validateValue( Address.class, Address::getCity, "Purbeck" );

Obviously, this will only work if there actually is a getter. But if your classes are following JavaBeans conventions - which often is the case - that’s fine.

Now how would the definition of the validateValue() method look like? The key is using the new Function type:

public <T, P> Set<ConstraintViolation<T>> validateValue(Class<T> type, Function<? super T, P> property, P value);

By using two type parameters, we make sure that the bean type, the property and the value passed for the property all correctly match. So API-wise, we got what we need: It’s safe to use, and the IDE will even auto-complete method names after starting to write Address::. But how do we derive the property name from the Function in the implementation of validateValue()?

That’s where the fun begins, as the Function interface just defines a single method, apply(), wich runs the function against a given instance of T. That seems not exactly helpful, does it?

ByteBuddy to the rescue

As it turns out, applying the function actually does the trick! By creating a proxy instance of the T type, we have a target for invoking the method and can obtain its name in the proxy’s method invocation handler.

Java comes with support for dynamic proxies out of the box, but that’s limited to proxying interfaces only. As our API should work with any kind of bean, also actual classes, I’m going to use a neat tool called ByteBuddy instead. ByteBuddy provides an easy-to-use DSL for creating classes on the fly which is exactly what we need.

Let’s begin by defining an interface which just allows to store and obtain the name of a property we obtained from a method reference:

public interface PropertyNameCapturer {

    String getPropertyName();

    void setPropertyName(String propertyName);

Now let’s use ByteBudy to programmatically create a proxy class which is assignable to the type of interest (e.g. Address) and PropertyNameCapturer:

public <T> T /* & PropertyNameCapturer */ getPropertyNameCapturer(Class<T> type) {
    DynamicType.Builder<?> builder = new ByteBuddy()                                       (1)
            .subclass( type.isInterface() ? Object.class : type );

    if ( type.isInterface() ) {                                                            (2)
        builder = builder.implement( type );

    Class<?> proxyType = builder
        .implement( PropertyNameCapturer.class )                                           (3)
        .defineField( "propertyName", String.class, Visibility.PRIVATE )
        .method( ElementMatchers.any() )                                                   (4)
            .intercept( PropertyNameCapturingInterceptor.class ) )
        .method( named( "setPropertyName" ).or( named( "getPropertyName" ) ) )             (5)
            .intercept( FieldAccessor.ofBeanProperty() )
        .load(                                                                             (6)

    try {
        Class<T> typed = (Class<T>) proxyType;
        return typed.newInstance();                                                        (7)
    catch (InstantiationException | IllegalAccessException e) {
        throw new HibernateException(
            "Couldn't instantiate proxy for method name retrieval", e

The code may appear a bit dense, so let me run you through it. First we obtain a new ByteBuddy instance (1) which is the entry point into the DSL. It is used to create a new dynamic type that either extends the given type (if it is a class) or extends Object and implements the given type if it is an interface (2).

Next, we let the type implement the PropertyNameCapturer interface and add a field for storing the name of the specified property (3). Then we say that invocations to all methods should be intercepted by PropertyNameCapturingInterceptor (we’ll come to that in a moment) (4). Only setPropertyName() and getPropertyName() (as declared in the PropertyNameCapturer interface) should be routed to write and read access of the field created before (5). Finally, the class is built, loaded (6) and instantiated (7).

That’s all that’s needed to create the proxy type; Thanks to ByteBuddy, this is done in a few lines of code. Now let’s take a look at the interceptor we configured before:

public class PropertyNameCapturingInterceptor {

    public static Object intercept(@This PropertyNameCapturer capturer, @Origin Method method) {         (1)
        capturer.setPropertyName( getPropertyName( method ) );                                           (2)

        if ( method.getReturnType() == byte.class ) {                                                    (3)
            return (byte) 0;
        else if ( ... ) { } // ... handle all primitve types
            // ...
        else {
            return null;

    private static String getPropertyName(Method method) {                                               (4)
        final boolean hasGetterSignature = method.getParameterTypes().length == 0
                && method.getReturnType() != null;

        String name = method.getName();
        String propName = null;

        if ( hasGetterSignature ) {
            if ( name.startsWith( "get" ) && hasGetterSignature ) {
                propName = name.substring( 3, 4 ).toLowerCase() + name.substring( 4 );
            else if ( name.startsWith( "is" ) && hasGetterSignature ) {
                propName = name.substring( 2, 3 ).toLowerCase() + name.substring( 3 );
        else {
            throw new HibernateException( "Only property getter methods are expected to be passed" );    (5)

        return propName;

intercept() accepts the Method being invoked as well as the target of the invocation (1). The annotations @Origin and @This are used to designate the respective parameters so ByteBuddy can generate the correct invocations of intercept() into the dynamic proxy type.

Note that there is no strong dependency from this interceptor to any types of ByteBuddy, meaning that ByteBuddy is only needed when creating that dynamic proxy type but not later on, when actually using it.

Via getPropertyName() (4) we then obtain the name of the property represented by the passed method object and store it in the PropertyNameCapturer (2). If the given method doesn’t represent a getter method, an exception is raised (5). The return value of the invoked getter is irrelevant, so we just make sure to return a sensible "null value" matching the property type (3).

With that, we got everything in place to get hold of the property represented by a method reference passed to validateValue():

public <T, P> Set<ConstraintViolation<T>> validateValue(Class<T> type, Function<? super T, P> property, P value) {
    T capturer = getPropertyNameCapturer( type );
    property.apply( capturer );
    String propertyName = ( (PropertyLiteralCapturer) capturer ).getPropertyName();

    // perform validation of the property value...

When applying the function to the property name capturing proxy, the interceptor will kick in, obtain the property name from the Method object and store it in the capturer instance, from where it can be retrieved finally.

And there you have it, some byte code magic lets us make creative use of Java 8 method references for emulating property literals.

That said, having real property literals as part of the language (dreaming for a moment, maybe Java 10?) would still be very beneficial. It’d allow to deal with private properties and, hopefully, one could refer to property literals from within annotations. Real property literals also would be more concise (no "get" prefix) and it’d generally feel a tad less hackish ;)

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