Using C++ in Cython

Cython 0.19.1

Using C++ in Cython


Cython v0.13 introduces native support for most of the C++ language. This means that the previous tricks that were used to wrap C++ classes (as described in are no longer needed.

Wrapping C++ classes with Cython is now much more straightforward. This document describe in details the new way of wrapping C++ code.

What’s new in Cython v0.13 about C++

For users of previous Cython versions, here is a brief overview of the main new features of Cython v0.13 regarding C++ support:

  • C++ objects can now be dynamically allocated with new and del keywords.
  • C++ objects can be stack-allocated.
  • C++ classes can be declared with the new keyword cppclass.
  • Templated classes are supported.
  • Overloaded functions are supported.
  • Overloading of C++ operators (such as operator+, operator[],...) is supported.

Procedure Overview

The general procedure for wrapping a C++ file can now be described as follows:

  • Specify C++ language in script or locally in a source file.
  • Create one or more .pxd files with cdef extern from blocks and (if existing) the C++ namespace name. In these blocks,
    • declare classes as cdef cppclass blocks
    • declare public names (variables, methods and constructors)
  • Write an extension modules, cimport from the .pxd file and use the declarations.

A simple Tutorial

An example C++ API

Here is a tiny C++ API which we will use as an example throughout this document. Let’s assume it will be in a header file called Rectangle.h:

namespace shapes {
    class Rectangle {
        int x0, y0, x1, y1;
        Rectangle(int x0, int y0, int x1, int y1);
        int getLength();
        int getHeight();
        int getArea();
        void move(int dx, int dy);

and the implementation in the file called Rectangle.cpp:

#include "Rectangle.h"

using namespace shapes;

Rectangle::Rectangle(int X0, int Y0, int X1, int Y1)
    x0 = X0;
    y0 = Y0;
    x1 = X1;
    y1 = Y1;


int Rectangle::getLength()
    return (x1 - x0);

int Rectangle::getHeight()
    return (y1 - y0);

int Rectangle::getArea()
    return (x1 - x0) * (y1 - y0);

void Rectangle::move(int dx, int dy)
    x0 += dx;
    y0 += dy;
    x1 += dx;
    y1 += dy;

This is pretty dumb, but should suffice to demonstrate the steps involved.

Specify C++ language in

The best way to build Cython code from scripts is the cythonize() function. To make Cython generate and compile C++ code with distutils, you just need to pass the option language="c++":

from distutils.core import setup
from Cython.Build import cythonize

setup(ext_modules = cythonize(
           "rect.pyx",                 # our Cython source
           sources=["Rectangle.cpp"],  # additional source file(s)
           language="c++",             # generate C++ code

Cython will generate and compile the rect.cpp file (from the rect.pyx), then it will compile Rectangle.cpp (implementation of the Rectangle class) and link both objects files together into, which you can then import in Python using import rect (if you forget to link the Rectangle.o, you will get missing symbols while importing the library in Python).

The options can also be passed directly from the source file, which is often preferable. Starting with version 0.17, Cython also allows to pass external source files into the cythonize() command this way. Here is a simplified file:

from distutils.core import setup
from Cython.Build import cythonize

    name = "rectangleapp",
    ext_modules = cythonize('*.pyx'),

And in the .pyx source file, write this into the first comment block, before any source code, to compile it in C++ mode and link it statically against the Rectange.cpp code file:

# distutils: language = c++
# distutils: sources = Rectangle.cpp

To compile manually (e.g. using make), the cython command-line utility can be used to generate a C++ .cpp file, and then compile it into a python extension. C++ mode for the cython command is turned on with the --cplus option.

Declaring a C++ class interface

The procedure for wrapping a C++ class is quite similar to that for wrapping normal C structs, with a couple of additions. Let’s start here by creating the basic cdef extern from block:

cdef extern from "Rectangle.h" namespace "shapes":

This will make the C++ class def for Rectangle available. Note the namespace declaration. Namespaces are simply used to make the fully qualified name of the object, and can be nested (e.g. "outer::inner") or even refer to classes (e.g. "namespace::MyClass to declare static members on MyClass).

Declare class with cdef cppclass

Now, let’s add the Rectangle class to this extern from block - just copy the class name from Rectangle.h and adjust for Cython syntax, so now it becomes:

cdef extern from "Rectangle.h" namespace "shapes":
    cdef cppclass Rectangle:

Add public attributes

We now need to declare the attributes and methods for use on Cython:

cdef extern from "Rectangle.h" namespace "shapes":
    cdef cppclass Rectangle:
        Rectangle(int, int, int, int) except +
        int x0, y0, x1, y1
        int getLength()
        int getHeight()
        int getArea()
        void move(int, int)

Note that the constructor is declared as “except +”. If the C++ code or the initial memory allocation raises an exception due to a failure, this will let Cython safely raise an appropriate Python exception instead (see below). Without this declaration, C++ exceptions originating from the constructor will not be handled by Cython.

Declare a var with the wrapped C++ class

Now, we use cdef to declare a var of the class with the C++ new statement:

cdef Rectangle *rec = new Rectangle(1, 2, 3, 4)
    recLength = rec.getLength()
    del rec     # delete heap allocated object

It’s also possible to declare a stack allocated object, as long as it has a “default” constructor:

cdef extern from "Foo.h":
    cdef cppclass Foo:

def func():
    cdef Foo foo

Note that, like C++, if the class has only one constructor and it is a default one, it’s not necessary to declare it.

Create Cython wrapper class

At this point, we have exposed into our pyx file’s namespace the interface of the C++ Rectangle type. Now, we need to make this accessible from external Python code (which is our whole point).

Common programming practice is to create a Cython extension type which holds a C++ instance pointer as an attribute thisptr, and create a bunch of forwarding methods. So we can implement the Python extension type as:

cdef class PyRectangle:
    cdef Rectangle *thisptr      # hold a C++ instance which we're wrapping
    def __cinit__(self, int x0, int y0, int x1, int y1):
        self.thisptr = new Rectangle(x0, y0, x1, y1)
    def __dealloc__(self):
        del self.thisptr
    def getLength(self):
        return self.thisptr.getLength()
    def getHeight(self):
        return self.thisptr.getHeight()
    def getArea(self):
        return self.thisptr.getArea()
    def move(self, dx, dy):
        self.thisptr.move(dx, dy)

And there we have it. From a Python perspective, this extension type will look and feel just like a natively defined Rectangle class. If you want to give attribute access, you could just implement some properties:

property x0:
    def __get__(self): return self.thisptr.x0
    def __set__(self, x0): self.thisptr.x0 = x0

Advanced C++ features

We describe here all the C++ features that were not discussed in the above tutorial.


Overloading is very simple. Just declare the method with different parameters and use any of them:

cdef extern from "Foo.h":
    cdef cppclass Foo:
        Foo(int, bool)
        Foo(int, int)

Overloading operators

Cython uses C++ for overloading operators:

cdef extern from "foo.h":
    cdef cppclass Foo:
        Foo* operator+(Foo*)
        Foo* operator-(Foo)
        int operator*(Foo*)
        int operator/(int)

cdef Foo* foo = new Foo()
cdef int x

cdef Foo* foo2 = foo[0] + foo
foo2 = foo[0] - foo[0]

x = foo[0] * foo2
x = foo[0] / 1

cdef Foo f
foo = f + &f
foo2 = f - f

del foo, foo2

Nested class declarations

C++ allows nested class declaration. Class declarations can also be nested in Cython:

cdef extern from "<vector>" namespace "std":
    cdef cppclass vector[T]:
        cppclass iterator:
            T operator*()
            iterator operator++()
            bint operator==(iterator)
            bint operator!=(iterator)
        void push_back(T&)
        T& operator[](int)
        T& at(int)
        iterator begin()
        iterator end()

cdef vector[int].iterator iter  #iter is declared as being of type vector<int>::iterator

Note that the nested class is declared with a cppclass but without a cdef.

C++ operators not compatible with Python syntax

Cython try to keep a syntax as close as possible to standard Python. Because of this, certain C++ operators, like the preincrement ++foo or the dereferencing operator *foo cannot be used with the same syntax as C++. Cython provides functions replacing these operators in a special module cython.operator. The functions provided are:

  • cython.operator.dereference for dereferencing. dereference(foo) will produce the C++ code *(foo)
  • cython.operator.preincrement for pre-incrementation. preincrement(foo) will produce the C++ code ++(foo)
  • ...

These functions need to be cimported. Of course, one can use a from ... cimport ... as to have shorter and more readable functions. For example: from cython.operator cimport dereference as deref.


Cython uses a bracket syntax for templating. A simple example for wrapping C++ vector:

# import dereference and increment operators
from cython.operator cimport dereference as deref, preincrement as inc

cdef extern from "<vector>" namespace "std":
    cdef cppclass vector[T]:
        cppclass iterator:
            T operator*()
            iterator operator++()
            bint operator==(iterator)
            bint operator!=(iterator)
        void push_back(T&)
        T& operator[](int)
        T& at(int)
        iterator begin()
        iterator end()

cdef vector[int] *v = new vector[int]()
cdef int i
for i in range(10):

cdef vector[int].iterator it = v.begin()
while it != v.end():
    print deref(it)

del v

Multiple template parameters can be defined as a list, such as [T, U, V] or [int, bool, char].

Standard library

Most of the containers of the C++ Standard Library have been declared in pxd files located in /Cython/Includes/libcpp. These containers are: deque, list, map, pair, queue, set, stack, vector.

For example:

from libcpp.vector cimport vector

cdef vector[int] vect
cdef int i
for i in range(10):
for i in range(10):
    print vect[i]

The pxd files in /Cython/Includes/libcpp also work as good examples on how to declare C++ classes.

Since Cython 0.17, the STL containers coerce from and to the corresponding Python builtin types. The conversion is triggered either by an assignment to a typed variable (including typed function arguments) or by an explicit cast, e.g.:

from libcpp.string cimport string
from libcpp.vector cimport vector

cdef string s = py_bytes_object
cpp_string = <string> py_unicode_object.encode('utf-8')

cdef vector[int] vect = xrange(1, 10, 2)
print(vect)              # [1, 3, 5, 7, 9]

cdef vector[string] cpp_strings = b'ab cd ef gh'.split()
print(cpp_strings.get(1))   # b'cd'

The following coercions are available:

Python type => C++ type => Python type
bytes std::string bytes
iterable std::vector list
iterable std::list list
iterable std::set set
iterable (len 2) std::pair tuple (len 2)

All conversions create a new container and copy the data into it. The items in the containers are converted to a corresponding type automatically, which includes recursively converting containers inside of containers, e.g. a C++ vector of maps of strings.


Cython cannot throw C++ exceptions, or catch them with a try-except statement, but it is possible to declare a function as potentially raising an C++ exception and converting it into a Python exception. For example,

cdef extern from "some_file.h":
    cdef int foo() except +

This will translate try and the C++ error into an appropriate Python exception. The translation is performed according to the following table (the std:: prefix is omitted from the C++ identifiers):

C++ Python
bad_alloc MemoryError
bad_cast TypeError
domain_error ValueError
invalid_argument ValueError
ios_base::failure IOError
out_of_range IndexError
overflow_error OverflowError
range_error ArithmeticError
underflow_error ArithmeticError
(all others) RuntimeError

The what() message, if any, is preserved. Note that a C++ ios_base_failure can denote EOF, but does not carry enough information for Cython to discern that, so watch out with exception masks on IO streams.

cdef int bar() except +MemoryError

This will catch any C++ error and raise a Python MemoryError in its place. (Any Python exception is valid here.)

cdef int raise_py_error()
cdef int something_dangerous() except +raise_py_error

If something_dangerous raises a C++ exception then raise_py_error will be called, which allows one to do custom C++ to Python error “translations.” If raise_py_error does not actually raise an exception a RuntimeError will be raised.

Static member method

If the Rectangle class has a static member:

namespace shapes {
    class Rectangle {
        static void do_something();


you can declare it as a function living in the class namespace, i.e.:

cdef extern from "Rectangle.h" namespace "shapes::Rectangle":
    void do_something()

Caveats and Limitations

Access to C-only functions

Whenever generating C++ code, Cython generates declarations of and calls to functions assuming these functions are C++ (ie, not declared as extern "C" {...}. This is ok if the C functions have C++ entry points, but if they’re C only, you will hit a roadblock. If you have a C++ Cython module needing to make calls to pure-C functions, you will need to write a small C++ shim module which:

  • includes the needed C headers in an extern “C” block
  • contains minimal forwarding functions in C++, each of which calls the respective pure-C function

Declaring/Using References

Question: How do you declare and call a function that takes a reference as an argument?

C++ left-values

C++ allows functions returning a reference to be left-values. This is currently not supported in Cython. cython.operator.dereference(foo) is also not considered a left-value.