Twitter messages appeared saying Gao Zhisheng's family had been in touch with him and listed his phone number.
It was the first contact that friends, family and reporters have had with Gao since he went missing on February 4, 2009.
Before being jailed and otherwise muzzled four years ago, Gao was the most dauntless of a new group of civil liberties lawyers. He took on sensitive cases involving underground Christians and the banned Falun Gong spiritual group.
The US and the European Union had called on China to investigate his disappearance but Chinese authorities gave vague explanations about Gao's whereabouts, heightening worries that he had been jailed or tortured as he was previously.
Contacted briefly on his mobile phone, Gao said he is living in Wutai Shan, a mountain range famous as a Buddhist retreat, and that he is "free at present."
He said: "I just want to be in peace and quiet for a while and be reunited with my family."
Gao declined to answer further questions, saying he was not allowed by law.