Where Dreams Begin/The Youth Memories (2023) 梦中那片海

Summary:  Set in Beijing during the 1970s,  6 youths meet at the ice rink at Shi Cha Hai where their lives are intertwined. Xiao Chun Sheng ft Xiao Zhan leads his group of guy friends in Beijing and they meet the beautiful and talented He Hong Ling ft Cao Fei Ran and the quiet but resolute Tong Xiao Mei ft Li Qin. This drama follows these youths as they set off on their journeys to follow their dreams all they way through to the 21st century.


Total Episode Count: 38

Initial Airing Date: June 1, 2023

Platform: CCTV8/Tencent


*Note – English translations may not match official translations


Initial rating [after 8 episodes] 7.5/10:  A charming drama with relatable and well-rounded characters, Xiao Zhan is a ray of sunshine as Xiao Chun Sheng in this group drama that is elevated with this Beijing setting.


Final Rating: 7.7/10 – A thoughtful drama about growth and persistence while staying true to oneself. This drama saw strong viewership on network television and online, breaking popularity records on Tencent. A strong cast and screenplay made this a thoroughly enjoyable chase for June.

xiao chun sheng 肖春生 

xiao zhan 肖战

The leader of his group of friends, he cares deeply for all of his relationships in his life. His dream is to join the army

tong xiao mei 佟晓梅

li qin 李沁

Daughter of a deputy commandant, she is quiet but resolute in her dream of becoming a doctor

ye guo hua 叶国华

liu rui lin 刘芮麟

Childhood best friends with Xiao Chun Sheng, he falls head over heels in love with He Hong Ling at first sight

he hong ling 贺红玲

cao fei ran 曹斐然

A headstrong young woman with wonderful musical talent that takes care of her ailing mother.

ye fang 叶芳 

zhao xin 赵昕

Xiao Mei’s best friend and Ye Guo Hua’s sister. She is overly logical and likes to plan her life

chen hong jun 陈宏军

cui hang 崔航

A close friend of Xiao Chun Sheng and Ye Guo Hua. He loves Ye Fang but his ambition led him to go astray.

qi tian 齐天

lu nuo 鲁诺

A local leader of “gangs”, he becomes fast friends with Xiao Chun Sheng after their first “fight”

xiao yan qiu 肖艳秋

Zhang ling xin 张龄心

Kind-hearted older sister of Xiao Chun SHeng

Initial Thoughts

I was initially hesitant to start this drama because the setting is not something I am too familiar with. This era of Chinese history (70s) is not one I spent too much time studying and I suppose would primarily resonate with a native Chinese audience who saw their parents dress and act like this or else an older generation who experienced this themselves first hand.  I’m also not sure how well received this would be for a western audience given the heavy portrayals of the Chinese Communist party but it is a great opportunity to learn something new.

Regardless, this is a charming drama chalk full of interesting details and relatable characters. One does not have to fully understand the intricacies of the aftermath of the cultural revolution to understand some of the challenges and hardships these youths face. But this drama is about the journey for these individuals that transcends generations and cultures. 

Given the Beijing setting, the drama makes painstaking efforts to portray Beijing during that era, from the costumes, to food, and even the Beijing accent. My gosh, the strong Beijing accent and even slang that’s in the drama is so fun to listen to. Xiao Zhan is not a native Beijing person, in fact he is from Chong Qing where they have their own dialect, but it’s obvious that he spent a lot of time trying to nail down the Beijing accent. It’s not perfect, especially when paired with a few co-stars who have that accent from birth, but it’s not too noticeably off and does elevate the drama.

Xiao Zhan’s star power is helping with reception as there are a ton of trending topics on Weibo discussing the drama. Often times online buzz doesn’t always translate to tv ratings but initial airing statistics are reasonably good which means this drama is appealing to the masses. I’m interested in seeing if this will match Li Qin’s ratings for Miles to Go or not as the drama progresses but fingers crossed because that be a huge career win for both Xiao Zhan and Li Qin.

Final Thoughts

This drama overall had a very good run. It broke 2% for CCTV8’s television ratings and became drama with the highest viewership in 2Q. It also broke 30,000 in TengXun’s online streaming platform popularity index, the only drama to do so since TengXun (Tencent) changed its popularity algorithm.  There are dozens if not hundreds of trending topics for this drama regarding Xiao Zhan and most of it was praise while The Youth Memories also began airing on no less than 3 additional network stations shortly after starting its run on CCTV8 which means that these stations believe they’ll get strong ratings as well. So, this is a success for Xiao Zhan and Li Qin as it seems the general public (older fans) and online users (younger fans) all enjoyed the drama.

I thoroughly enjoyed chasing this drama and it completely changed my view of Xiao Zhan. I’d always been a “lu ren fen” or a passing by fan of his even after watching him in dramas with Li Qin and The Untamed but dang, his turn as Xiao Chun Sheng really made me view him differently. He brought Xiao Chun Sheng to life with his megawatt smile and high level energy during his youth and then somehow became even more attractive with the more mature and dependable aura in middle age. He looked so good in those turtle neck sweaters! All I can say is, if Xiao Chun Sheng exists and is single, please come find me! 

As for Li Qin, this is quite a win for her as well. Her other drama, Miles to Go 人生之路, actually saw tv ratings break 3% which is higher than this drama and she is the only female lead this year to have 2 dramas break 2% on network television. I am extremely proud of her because she doesn’t have much online presence anymore but seems to be picking great projects. She was ridiculed heavily for choosing these two projects last year so it’s great to see that she didn’t need to listen to online criticism. I personally loved the character of Tong Xiao Mei in this drama. Quiet but resolute, she didn’t need to have much screen time in the first several episodes to ensure a strong presence in the drama. Her fans are currently rather critical that she has not marketed the hell out of herself for this drama but I think this is actually a smart choice. She has been burned too many times by her association with Xiao Zhan, even though they are good friends. Can you imagine the online hatred she’d receive if she marketed her on screen romance with him too much? It would be devastating. Instead, she’s been happy to stay in the background to allow the drama to progress. She’s been in group gatherings and interviews but has not publicly posted anything that would open herself to attack. That I think is incredibly smart but also a sad reflection of how vengeful the online world is. 

Overall, I commend the screenwriters and the director, RIP Director Fu who passed away before this drama aired, and the rest of the cast for creating such a thought provoking, heartful and touching show.

What I Liked [Major Spoilers Ahead]

  • This is a drama for deep introspection
    • Many important takeaways/lessons on life that can be used in our own lives. 2 pieces of dialogue that made an impact on me were:
      • Qian A Mao, Xiao Chun Sheng’s fellow solider and close friend, tells Xiao Chun Sheng that friends can walk together for a while and slowly fade apart. You’re friends due to the circumstances of your upbringing but then as people get older, they don’t always stay together. This was a response to Xiao Chun Sheng who couldn’t understand why his closest childhood friends started to become distant while he wanted to remain close friends with them. Many people in their youth experience this, whether its going off to college, moving for a new job or any other circumstance. I’m glad it was plainly stated as a opportunity for growth for Xiao Chun Sheng
      •  Ye Fang’s accurate description of He Hong Ling’s internal struggle about what life she wanted. He Hong Ling was dating Xiao Chun Sheng but also had the love of Ye Guo Hua. Xiao Chun Sheng represented the idealized and passionate love that He Hong Ling wanted while Ye Guo Hua represented the easy and comfortable way out. Xiao Chun Sheng would support her and her career unconditionally but doesn’t has much money while Ye Guo Hua comes with status and money, and while he loves He Hong Ling, may not be as supportive of her passions.  He Hong Ling couldn’t decide which relationship she wanted and it was clear that she would regret any choice she made. Ye Fang’s predictions ultimately came to pass.  The takeaway for viewers is that any choice someone makes in life should be taken with full responsibility. It does no one any favors, especially oneself, by regretting that decision when it was a choice you made. 
  • The handling of Xiao Chun Sheng’s 2 relationships
    • Xiao Chun Sheng was the epitome of a kind, supportive and caring boyfriend to He Hong Ling. He bravely and clearly expressed his love when they were together and didn’t deny that he loved her.  But then disaster struck where he had to save his best friend Ye Guo Hua on the battlefield resulting in him losing the ability to walk. Faced with the reality that her boyfriend might never stand again and needed to head back to Beijing for treatment and giving up her concert chair position in the military in Yun Nan, thousands of miles away from Beijing, He Hong Ling made the heart wrenching choice to stay and leave Xiao Chun Sheng. Any other drama would have written Xiao Chun Sheng to be the one to “give up” the relationship in order to not let He Hong Ling feel bad. But in this drama, he actually wanted to fight for her. She was the one to give him up. This rejection helped pave the way for him to hit rock bottom but then recognize that there was someone who is a better fit for him – Tong Xiao Mei
    • Xiao Chun Sheng’s relationship with Tong Xiao Mei is a reflection of true love and should be what people strive for in meaningful, long lasting relationships. Tong Xiao Mei, while quiet, was the rock that saved Xiao Chun Sheng from wasting away after his injury and brought him back up. She helped him regain the strength walk again through her own strong belief in him. Their love is easy to understand as they have the same values, and have the same drive. Something Xiao Chun Sheng realized that he and He Hong Ling did not have. Dramas rarely depict marriages relationships past the getting married phase, only for people to imagine their happily ever after. In this drama, we get to see them fall in love, confirm their love and see what their lives are like years later. That love never changed, only grew stronger. Oh, and I loved that the drama had Xiao Chun Sheng fall in love with Tong Xiao Mei before he found out she was his “library girl” not because she was his library girl. His face of happiness to find that they were the same person was such a relief for both him and the audience. Any other cliched drama would have done it the other way around. 
  • Tong Xiao Mei’s confidence and understanding
    • I loved this character. She fell in love with Xiao Chun Sheng at the beginning and she knew he was actually interested at one time in the “library girl” he helped. But when he told her he fell in love with He Hong Ling, she did not try to sabotage or tamper his relationship. Instead, she just wished him happiness. She gave up her spot in the military to try to allow Xiao Chun Sheng and He Hong Ling to be together. Everything she did showed her love for him but she never overstepped her boundaries. When Xiao Chun Sheng finally came around and fell in love with her, she also never felt insecure. She even proactively gave Xiao Chun Sheng and He Hong Ling a chance to talk it out after many years apart. That is true confidence. 
  • Each individual had clear characteristics with motivations that suited that person
    • It’s clear that the screenwriter had a very clear understanding of each character in the drama and wrote each to have their strengths and weaknesses. No one is perfect, not even Xiao Chun Sheng. People think he’s too idealistic and cared too much about his friendships with his “bros” that often turned around to bite him when he could have easily just ignored them. Tong Xiao Mei gave up her opportunity to be an army doctor to help Chun Sheng recover, which any parent would have been furious by. Hong Ling and Ye Guo Hua are both selfish and jealous but their background upbringing made them that way. Ye Fang, while literally able to predict everything, did often feel repressive. Let’s not even talk about Cheng Hong Jun. None of these characters are background fodder and the drama succeeded in painting fleshed out characters for this diverse cast. 

What could have been better

  • Timelines
    • The drama spans 30 years from 1975ish all the way up to 2003 or so. However, the drama was rather inconsistent in how it managed the time settings and periods, especially during the later episodes. Parts of the drama spent many episodes over a few weeks or months and then we would hightail it to a new year or new decade based off of a single piece of dialogue and it was sometimes confusing to keep up. Additionally, there were sometimes inconsistent cuts to different couples that did not make for an entirely smooth show. 

  • Superfluous side plots
    • While I enjoyed everyone in the cast, some of the side stories especially with Qi Tian and He Zi going off to start businesses and do market research I thought took screentime away from latter parts of the drama and also slowed down the pace of the show during the middle 20s episodes. 

2 thoughts on “Review: Where Dreams Begin/The Youth Memories (2023) 梦中那片海

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